Times when living in a small apartment is too small and the getting out to remind myself that living in London is a privilege means hopping on a bus, any bus (as it turns out) to navigate into the city.
Today it was the number 39 and 87 (the new major has bestowed on us locals a free second bus within an hour) and so to Clapham Junction and then onto Parliament Square. Being on a bus is still and remains a novel experience and the best way to discover the city. Being high up, I have the opportunity to gaze into windows of apartments, into the backyards of dwellers and peer into the lives of urban citizens in every shape or form. Pristine, unkept, rented, owned. Some with neat squares of garden, some with weeds overgrown amongst bins and debris. People are living there is the story. It is the London few tourists see, hidden and sullied in urban resilience . And resilience is what it is all about. I am in awe of these great Londoners.
It reminds me of the shock of actually becoming other than the tourist.
Still, there is something fundamentally brotherhood in seeing the council houses, the chicken and kebab shops on the route. The bus fills with personalities of all race, ages and types. Chocolate children and young mothers with no wedding rings, glued to phones in the standard track suit of daily being. Their lives are as small as a punnet of strawberries, tasted and forgotten. The route is of children with instant dinners and soda, of turbans and old ladies with shopping carts. I sit on this bus with the idea of a past life and a story no-one cares to hear. Some are silent with music for comfort, other talk loudly in broken English.
‘Yeah, innit just the most random my man.’
‘I swear, the baby is gonna get that conjuncti … summin’ that glues up them eyes and makes them brutal sick an she got no man and no babysitter sort the shit out when she gotta go to work.’
‘Well he said, that she said, that he said that Shamiqua was throwin’ her booty around like last year’s Christmas puddin’ and so he said that she said that he said …’
Everyone’s listening to everyone else … everyone is clutching the grocery bag.
They get off closer to Westminster Abbey. Life for them is not the places tourists visit, nor do they know of these, many having lived here for years without tasting any of it. It’s expensive London.
I see what the tourist don’t see. I see a city in it’s totality. The poverty, seediness, delight and creativity of city living. I pass the back alleys, the derelict churches, the rising mosques. I see demolition and growth and try to remember what was there before. I pass MI6 at Vauxhall and think of Bond. I think of Brexit. I think of the Co-po funeral plan. The London that swells and shifts and the river that runs through it.
One of millions of making it through the day. And as I alight in the Parliament of power, those people are gone, tourists and corporates take their place. The London of postcards, the winter of lights, the tree from Norway on Trafalgar Square. Looming in her ever present state, The National Gallery to which I am headed for the shaking of life and the falling into another. The lives of painters, long gone, now revered on walls. Their poverty and struggles are in the colours.
Cravavaggio. He is a favourite and I am sad he died alone on a foreign beach at such a young age. I can stand before him now, with Vermeer, Rembrandt, Monet and Van Gogh. Room to gallery room I am in the company of historical genius in Art. They too were the lowly ones, the hired guns of the paintbrush, the angry young men, the dreamers and students of others. There are never enough hours to stand before greatness, created by the gifted from stories not unlike those I left on the bus a few moments ago.
In a day, on a bus, from a sector of London to another, the richness of life on the streets to the magnificence of Cezanne and Manet. Lautrec to Lavender Hill. This is London, in a day, a short day with so much more to discover. There are artists now, the city inspires, the stories of everyday life are waiting to take their place …
And on my way back, on the bus, now clouded in human vapour and rain pouring down the windows, I wonder of my own place, somewhere in the middle and what it means. The opportunity to witness the greatness and the ordinary man – and who knows what talents lies within the city still? Blessed I am to see it all. Food for thought for sure. I am privileged to be part of this moving life …