Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Shut up and drive

I went to Oxford yesterday. My other half's parents and aunt and uncle were going to be there for the day visiting his cousin who is at university there so we thought we'd go along and do the family thing. My complete ignorance of the geography of the south east of England reared its ugly head yet again as I assumed Oxford was around half an hour away by train and, seemingly, it is on other days, but when I checked the very ugly National rail website it told me I'd be glued to a train seat for 1 hour 45 minutes.

On my travels I had seen the Oxford Tube coach which promised departures every ten minutes and whose garish livery trilled proudly of onboard Wi-Fi and comfortable seating. The other half's auntie said it was OK and pretty speedy, so to save money (it's been one of those months), we decided to take the coach. First mistake of the day.

We got to Victoria and made a decent attempt to find the coach station from the tube. It seems that 'they' don’t want you to find the coach station at all. We dutifully followed arrow after arrow and endless signposts which led us past all manner of unlovely shops and 'eateries'. The weather was awful and very hair-sleekness unfriendly and I could feel my ire bubbling like organic porridge so was relieved to see the very coach we needed waiting at a bus stop as we rounded yet another corner. We got on and asked the driver for a return to Oxford. He asked when we were coming back. We said the same day. We sat down and realised that while he'd sold my other half a return, I’d got a single. I went back to politely point out the error only to have him turn on me with a crazed look and loudly deny I ever asked for a return. Twice. His pupils were getting large and clearly such details mattered to him so I demurred no further and allowed him to think he'd won, silently seething. My ticket was 'upgraded' and I slumped back into my seat, ready to numb the pain of the journey with some serious internet junk browsing. Alas promises of Wi-Fi proved to be big fat lies and I instead spent most of the journey staring out of the window, marvelling at how weird and unattractive London gets the further out you go.

I remembered now why I hadn’t spent more than 20 minutes on a coach since the late '90s: they're a magnet for weirdos, tightarses and trainophobes. We had the obligatory teen playing tinny R&B through his mobile phone, a fluffy-haired corduroy enthusiast switching seats every two seconds and a Next underwear-sporting student who blabbed on his mobile constantly, pausing only to get out of his seat to find something in his bag in the overhead locker, giving us a delightful view of his pale arse-crack and aforementioned budget underwear,

After a soul-shattering, unremarkable journey of 2 hours and 10 minutes we arrived in Oxford. It was only my second visit. My first, 10 years ago, had been in the summer when I was in charge of about 100 foreign language students who wanted to be there as much as I did. My only sightseeing then consisted of the McDonald's (it's all the Spaniards wanted to do) and a desperately outdated shopping centre. Oxford has been in surgery and had its nose and boobs done since then: the shops were OK and there were loads of places to eat or grab a drink. There was something not quite right about the place, though. Sure, it was dreaming spires-a-gogo and full of lots of historic buildings, but they all seemed to be part of the university and not open to the Oxford masses. There was also a number of hulking great 1960s monstrosities, leading me to conclude that the council must have been freebasing when approving planning permission or,more realistically, just open to kickbacks.

Eventually I got ornamental building fatigue and even singing 'oooold buildiiiing' to the tune of 'Goldfinger' every time I saw one soon lost its novelty value. There isn't really a lot to say about Oxford that you can’t get from watching an old episode of Inspector Morse. Despite being tooled up with relics and ornate architecture, I didn't get much of a positive vibe from the place. Maybe it’s nicer in summer. The afternoon went all too quickly and soon it was time to get back onto the coach of doom and hotfoot it back to London. We waited in the rain for ages as rival operators' coaches came and went. Finally, our chariot arrived and we wearily clambered aboard. Again we were lacking Wi-Fi so I read in semi-darkness until London started appearing through the rain-splattered windows. At Victoria we got off and headed for the nearest pub to get out of the cold and rain. The drummer from McFly, Harry (why do I know his name? I'm 32!), was in there drinking with friends who all looked like foetuses. He looked far too boring and ordinary to be famous, but that’s true of most 'celebs' I've laid eyes on.

So after two Sundays of venturing beyond my SE1 comfort zone, I was looking forward to a quiet one next week, but alas I'll be in Yorkshire for a wedding. A family wedding at that. Shudder.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Harrow goodbye

It's odd the things you do on the spur of the moment on a Sunday. One minute I was standing in London Bridge station, the next I was on the Metropolitan line heading to territories as yet personally uncharted.

Having lived in London for over five years, it feels like there's a lot of it I've already seen. This is, of course, complete rubbish: there are countless satellite town out there that I haven't stepped foot near, mainly because I can't imagine what there would be of interest to find when I got there that I can't find where I live. I've always been interested in the Metropolitan line; I love the fact that once out of Baker Street it barely bothers to stop in inner London, preferring instead to speed out towards the suburbs as fast as it can in a marvellous fit of snobbery and dismissal of inner city life. As a teenager I read a book by Julian Barnes called Metroland, which I believe was also televised. Its setting was the fag-end of the Metropolitan line and to a non-London dweller like me at the time, the idea of living so close to London and yet so far away fascinated me. The book itself was dull, maudlin and irritiating, but its locations stayed with me.

I've never been past Wembley Park so, as I sat on the train at Baker Street and surveyed the grubby map of the line, I resolved to at least nudge into zone 5. I had no idea how long this would take or even why I was doing it, but as the train set off and began to chug under tunnels groaning with the weight of London's buildings, I felt like I was going on holiday. I selected Harrow-on-the-Hill as my destination: it was just within zone 5 and sounded like it couldn’t help but be a nice place, but if it were a warzone awash with ASBO teens and bitter OAPs, I'd be close-ish to civilisation. Semi-familiar pockets of north London zoomed by, Wembley and its shouting fans came and went (Wales were playing, er, somebody, judging by the supporters; I have no interest in the sporting calendar) and before long I had arrived at my destination.

Wembley-bound sporting supporters were blocking the exit which excitedly signposted the town centre and buses, so I took the other exit and found myself on an unremarkable street. After taking the long way round on a traffic-heavy road that was home to only a pub and a few rundown-looking shops, I found myself next to the afore-mentioned bus station and opposite a shopping centre. There were around three people on the street. It may have been a Sunday, but it was only 2.30 in the afternoon. Where was everybody?

It was stepping into the shopping centre that gave me my answer. The place was pretty busy thanks to a large Primark at its hub. I have never understood the fixation with Primark. Sure, it’s cheap but the styles are beyond shit and it is greatly unpleasant shopping experience. I realise that we now live in a world where reverse bragging is the order of the day and that it's now much cooler to boast how little you paid for your clothes, but there are much better places to get inexpensive clothes from, surely.

I wandered around the shopping centre for a few seconds. Aside from a small but quite good Topshop there was nothing to see. Shops with names like Shoe Zone, Book Zone, Kitchen Zone and Suicide Zone surrounded me. Hungry and feeling more desolate by the second, I noticed a food court on the upper level and made my way up the escalator flanked on either side by people carrying newly-purchased deep fat fryers. The food court was where it was all happening. It was noisy and seemed devoid any natural material whatsoever, only plastic, plastic and more plastic. Pizza Hut jostled alongside KFC, Burger King, Quizno's and Subway for my attention, but it was Spudulike (sic) I plumped for. I hadn’t eaten in one in years and it seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn't, although I admired their cutlery (plastic of course!)

I went for a walk around what I thought was Harrow town centre but was shocked to find absolutely nothing happening. The only signs of activity were a bustling Pizza Express and a solitary couple eating in a restaurant called Kebabland. Nothign else was open save for a newsagent. The wind started to whip up around me as if telling me to go home and I decided no matter how much I pulled in my hoodie tighter it wasn't going to get any warmer.

I returned to central London, the journey become less interesting the closer I got, and met my other half, whereupon I slated Harrow as a one-horse town and compared it to a less exciting version of my own hometown. Later that day, I looked online to see if Harrow-on-the-Hill and Harrow proper were two separate places, as I was sure I'd heard that Harrow was a pretty major place in Middlesex, yet had seen no evidence of any metropolis. It was then I discovered that just around the corner from where I’d been was the town centre itself; if I'd carried on through the god-awful shopping centre and not been sidelined by an undercooked spud, I would have found it. As it was, I judged a book by its cover and turned on my heels without giving it so much as a once-over.

I'm sorry Harrow; one day I'll return to right my wrong.