These days it’s very rare I go to a large city – I’ve been to too many already – New York, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, Chicago, Frankfurt and many more besides, including London a few times. For me, big cities mean stress, noise, pollution, crowds and lots of expense, so it was with quite a bit of reluctance I visited London again recently, even if I had a good excuse: Kasia, my Polish music teacher friend, from the Kaszub region of North Poland, was bringing her pupils on a school tour to the city. So for a few freezing December days, 30 or so pupils aged 11-16, three teachers and a guide trudged around such sites as the London Eye, Greenwich Village, Buckingham Palace and too many museums to mention (the free ones!), and I joined in for a bit of their marathon so as I could catch up with Kasia.
It was great to see an old friend – it’s funny but in some ways very little seemed to have changed – she has aged very little, she still has that quick wit, biting sarcasm and a wicked smile. In a way, it was as if I had seen her only yesterday and we just carried on conversations like there hadn’t been a gap of many years. (Apart from visiting me briefly in Ireland almost 10 years ago, an equally short visit of mine to Poland to see her and others about 15 years ago, it has been over 20 years since we spent any significant time in each others’ company). What wasn’t so great was traipsing around with a group of impatient, McDonald’s obsessed schoolkids and their teachers. (Although I avoided most of this, only dipping in and out of the tour when it suited, such as when it lashed rain and we ended up in the excellent National History Museum with its myriad exotic stuffed animals and fascinating facts on creepy crawlies and the like).
I should point out at this stage that the average Polish tour is an endurance test, not for the fainthearted. They are at the best of times thoroughly exhausting, trying as they do to fit in as much sightseeing as humanly possible (another thing that has scarcely changed in 20 years!). It’s Tuesday, so we have Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, Madame Tussaud’s, 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square to fit in. It’s Wednesday, so we must be in Belgium, it’s Thursday so we have to be in Germany – kind of thing. You get the picture……As one Polish tour organiser once said ‘ye’ll be so tired from sightseeing, ye’ll sleep on the bus, so no need for so many nights of accommodation’. (!)
No, not for me. I spent a lot of time exploring the greener parts of the city ‘far from the madding crowd’. I recommend the walk by Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock. There are numerous barges along the canal, many converted into cafés and restaurants. Not many people living in them, from what I could see, but then again, it could just have been the time of day – maybe canal fees and London living expenses are so high, that everyone needs to be constantly working to afford that lifestyle. I barely saw a single sinner. Maybe one day I’ll go back when the weather is nicer and I’ll see (what I hoped) hippies playing music on their barges. Another lovely underrated place is Richmond Park (the largest of the royal parks seemingly), full of mature trees, deer, squirrels, stunning views of the city from Richmond Hill and many acres of park to explore.
While in London, I was staying with a friend who has been living in the city for many years near to Portobello Road, which at the weekend is converted into a second-hand and antiques market. This market, along with the Camden Market was one of the highlights of my trip – the sheer variety on sale is astonishing: homemade jewellery from various materials such as wood, metal and ivory, dvds, cds, vinyl, clothes of all kinds, collectables such as badges, war memorabilia, food from around the globe, antiques etc. Wonderful!
My friend had several visits while I was there – mostly from older Irish men, many of whom have lived a long time in the city. One character was a Kerryman who has lived there for 50 years (he hasn’t lost the accent or the philosophical outlook on life, you’ll be glad to hear). I was very interested in hearing their stories – like when they first arrived in London, the only foreigners were Irish and black and how they queued up to get the (once) plentiful jobs in those days of no CVs or ‘Health and Safety’. Another guy (not quite the full shilling) seemed to have Tourette’s Syndrome – he constantly said ‘pink’, sometimes followed by ‘rectums’!
Kilburn and Cricklewood are names very familiar to a certain generation of Irish in London, but now have been largely replaced by other ethnic groups, such as Afro-Caribbean. The different waves of immigration are a fascinating phenomenon – one of the most recent ones seems to be Brazilians if the Elephant and Castle area (named after a local coaching inn which was situated at a famous crossroads) is anything to go by. There seemed to be loads of Brazilian cafes, pubs and shops in Elephant and Castle.
Soho, the West End and Carnaby Street, in particular were lit up in spectacular fashion for the Christmas period. Multi-coloured lights, decorations and even exotic birds made from paper/ papier maché were suspended above street level. This, along with the crowds, buskers and myriad street performers created a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere.
The last time I was in London was perhaps 15 years ago, and I noticed one huge change that came completely unexpected – that the place is no longer a low-rise city, especially the former Docklands area. Canary Wharf, for example, reminded me of Manhattan or Shanghai. You step out of the YouTube station (as I call it), and you immediately gaze upwards in a mixture of awe and shock at the towering skyscrapers – another sign of the gentrification (or ‘social cleansing’ as I’ve heard it described) of everywhere. Many of these structures are mega-banks and overpriced apartments for the rich part-time investor dwellers.
But the highlight of my journey was getting to see, hear and dance to the mighty Jah Shaka, a legend amongst dub reggae fans. Dub is a variation of reggae, characterised by its’ soundsystems, plentiful echo, reverb, deep, heavy bass and often quicker tempo. Jah Shaka has been doing what he does best for over 40 years, and his experience showed through with this spectacular gig, which took place in Tottenham. I danced my socks off! A sonic multiple orgasm!! What a way to end a trip…..
So, will I be rushing to go back to London? No way! You can shove your outrageous prices, crowds, noise, pollution and mass tourism. Dub is put on often in Galway and we even have good markets in Tullamore now. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to my forests, mountains, national parks and friendly picturesque villages where the likelihood of me being blown up by state-sponsored terrorism is very low, where small shops with staff (not machines) still (just about) exist and where things are largely still paid in cash (as opposed to card and plastic). You can stuff your small cages and ridiculous rents, McDonald’s and Starbucks. I’ll shut up now. Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh.