Postcard from London

Posted on September 24, 2013



An award-winning essay by Michael Irwin






Tube posters say: Do not skateboard on the platform. Do not take your dogs up the escalator. No Smoking Anywhere. Blessed be the rule of ‘NO’. So don’t help when you see a crowd tramp through a girl’s suitcase spilled on the platform. Don’t give up your seat: your dad did that once for an older lady on the way in from Heathrow (doing the Northern Irish gentlemanly thing); she got out at Hounslow West and some giant geezer just took her seat – sat all the way in to Earl’s Court.  The tannoy says: We apologize for short delays due to signal failure at Farringdon. So we’re stuck in burning rubber and sweat for an hour at the least, if we’re lucky, but thank God for precious memories – stinking, old, wooden escalator slats, sucked up in drafts with music from the rotting lungs of the beast. The platform says: Mind the Gap. I will.

In Portobello Road he says: They got the villains for the Brinks Matt job, they didn’t get the gold.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have the gold for you today, spread out on this here fine, white, linen cloth. The bed sheet hides a makeshift table, three planks on two milk crates. The market trader says: Sell you just ‘bout anythin’ gov’ from church stained glass to African barber’s shop signs – or you can nip round the corner for ‘alf an ounce of sinsemilla from the Yardies in All Saint’s Road, if you-is lucky. Wise up. Get yourself a bun in the Portuguese bakery in Goldburn Road or a bratwurst from West Indians under the Westway. The newsreader says: Concorde makes aerospace history leaving New York to break the speed of sound. But Concorde nearly broke washing lines in Hounslow, snotty nose coming in so low sniffing spices among saris and street trinkets, its rumble inside your belly. The guy in the King Kebab near Centrepoint says: Chilli, garlic, sauce on de kebab? I say: Ever heard tell of a pastie supper and bap?

In The Globe Bar, Fulham Palace Road, an Australian church warden – built like a brick shithouse, patrolling sawdust floor and Sunday drinkers with slabs of beer firing empty cans at bad comedians – says: G ’day mate, howsit goin? No firing full cans at the funny fellas. I say: ‘London calling, to the faraway towns, now war is declared, and the battle come down, London calling to the underworld.’  In Pat Henley’s Cellar bar in County Kilburn among after hours gangsters he says: Elvis has just left the building for a barbeque in Madame Tussauds. I say: Go look up the Battle of Waterloo there; wake up and smell the gun smoke. Go see that lonely crow on the Tower of London, another battlefield scrounger after his own Burger King. Pub landlord in Chelsea says: When can you start? I say: Now, right now, straightaway. Landlord in Kentish Town says: Where’s the rent? Later, I say, later, and use the cash for a well-earned night out in the West End where neon signs reflecting on rainy pavements in Piccadilly Circus flash ‘Sanyo’, ‘Panasonic’, Coca-Cola’. The Harri Krishna guys passing McDonalds in Regent’s Street, robed in orange, ringing bells, dancing, say – Har-ri, Har-ri, Harry Lamma ­ – amid roasting chestnuts, hot dogs, Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats posters. I say, in a drunken stupor: What about Harry Lime, the third man? 

The building site in Liverpool street station says: I’m obliterating history, un-documenting the earth, as big excavators scoop innards of clay and brick from years of  compressed mud,  to blitz a forty foot crater, while a row of wooden trellises prop up listed, outside walls and two inside archways faced in Victorian, white brick glaze. I say: I’m just a brickie, a spider climbing threads of ladders tied to webs of scaffolding with a brick in each hand, replacing and patching up damage on the top two rows caused by the crane’s swinging ball. I say: Up here, one hundred and fifty feet above the tracks, I’ll make my own secret history myself, scraping ‘Mick’ on just one brick, my own stamped London postcard.  ‘Kilroy was here’. The city says: Yesterday’s plans are rebuilt today; tomorrow’s already ripping out what today has rebuilt.  The Victorian, three storey tenements with rooms for the servants are today’s rented rooms and bed-sits – their  partitions defining the owner’s greed – and tomorrow’s minimal, futuristic, yuppie loft conversions. I say: Your running out of space so you’re just re-digging the same ground.    

Old Father Thames says: I’m the bearer of the great tide of Imperial History. I say: You’re just full of shit and debris, sticking out of your silt. See that bent rickety bicycle wheel stuck in the mud and still going round in the wind: it ain’t no London Eye – just a poor man’s weathercock. See that abandoned shopping trolley stuck in sleetch, an empty birdcage, belly-up: ain’t Tesco’s Finest no more. See that earthenware fragment from centuries ago – it’s all washed up. But I usually say nothing tramping round on my tod without tube fairs.

I like, though, to stop and stand on London’s bridges, the poor man’s cinemascope. Vauxhall, Westminster, Barnes, Hammersmith, Putney, Battersea, Waterloo or Tower – you name it. Up there you play Pooh Sticks or watch the grey-blue river swirl and eddy, swirl and ebb, swirl and eddy, and swirl, willy-nilly, hither and thither, way, way down below. Old Willie sometimes joins me there and he’s fond of saying, very grandiloquently, even romantically: See from up here, dear God, the very houses seem asleep and all that mighty heart is lying still.’ London’s just a pretty postcard to Willie. I say nothing but if I’m thinking the whole damn place, in this light off the river, is built on glitz and sleetch.