The routine would be the same every time I welcomed a friend visiting London for the first time.
Invariably, he would be based at a hotel near Heathrow. We would find ourselves in a bus heading towards Heathrow Central, followed by a tube ride on the Piccadilly Lane, a change at Green Park that would take us to Westminster, a journey that would take us through as many cultures in as many minutes.
Whilst persistently being asked by my friend how far we were from Big Ben, my reassuring response of “right outside the Westminster station” would fail to convince him until the moment he steps out and takes in the sight at Bridge Street, manifestly real, yet, in my mind, as anachronistic as the idea of British monarchy.
While he gets busy with his camera, I would often take myself back more than a decade or so when the thought of visiting Big Ben had resonated with the idea of having London ticked off my travel list. It would take me several visits over the course of the last decade to dismiss how rubbish the notion had been, and eradicate other aphorisms I’d framed for landmarks across the globe.
He’d soon get a view of the Thames, to his left, and the Westminster Bridge that runs across it. I would sense his contemporary excitement and anticipate his camera being flung towards me.
I’d take as many snaps of him as steps as we would approach the bridge to get a glimpse of the London Eye in front of us. Before he could question me, I’d quickly blurt out: “30 pounds, and absolutely not worth it.”
He’d stare at me with disbelief, wearing an expression bordering utter shock, as though I’ve denied him a very basic right. “Won’t it be great to get a snap of the Big Ben from the top?”
The following two minutes would be crucial, as each one of us would have the opportunity to judge the sanity of the other. I’d repeat the price, again. And again, emphasizing that it isn’t worth it. Somewhat traumatized by my opinion, he would soon give in. The price would be large enough for him not to argue: 3000 Indian Rupees for a glorified Giant Wheel isn’t my idea of fun. We’d continue our walk through the riddle of lanes emanating around the Thames.
The scene would hardly vary with every walk I take across the neighborhood: un-named stalls near the bridge selling souvenirs varying from Oxford University tees to Premier League flags, tourists falling prey to wagers they’d place on hawkers demonstrating cups and balls, an almost-always large congregation of Chinese tourists (often led by a guide) with their selfie sticks and desperate smiles trying to catch every pixel of London that could fall within the focus of their lens, the odd athlete jogging around the perimeter with his earphones plugged tightly to his ears oblivious to the chaos that surrounds him, an old British couple sitting by one of the cafés along Victoria Embankment with their walking sticks (yes, they’re still used today) inclined against their chairs, possibly wondering whatever had happened to the locals.
And suddenly, a lot of what has been puzzling my friend about the scene would make sense, and I’d be asked the same question that many a first-time visitor have asked me, albeit in different forms: “Where are the locals?”
London is a city where, as a foreigner, you are invisible rather than obvious; where the chunk of cross-cultural interconnectedness is tossed in with every spoon of baked beans. For London, like nowhere else in the world, draws Trinidad and Lagos and Karachi and Tokyo together under one roof.
Look at any of England’s sporting squads and the thought of having an all British (by heritage) roster is a delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke. Workers across the socio-economic spectrum vary from the Eastern European construction worker to the Afghan-Sikh restaurant proprietor.
A land where, once, the neighbouring Irish were frowned upon with the same insignificance as the Asian immigrants, London’s scale of cosmopolitan appeal, today, has papered over any misgivings concerning immigration. The British National Party, a far-right political party in the United Kingdom which has urged immigrants to return to the lands of their ethnic origin, has dwindled in significance since 2010 (it had fielded 8 candidates in the 2015 election, compared to the 339 candidates who had stood in 2010. Of course, I am not going to draw overarching conclusions over topics that I don’t know enough about).
We’d soon find ourselves walking along The Queen’s Walk near London Eye, an area which comes to life early evening with musicians, food vendors and other entertainers crowding the squares alongside endless rows of shops selling an assorted array of goods, very few of which would be genuinely British. Such zones offer plenty of room for unwanted friends – the innocent visitor is often a lottery ticket on two legs.
We would be occasionally distracted by the chimes of the Big Ben (again), the perfect image of which my friend would continue to persist in trying to capture through his camera – different angles, different perspectives. The scenery, otherwise, would be punctuated by the ferries transporting tourists across the Thames. And the Sea Life London Aquarium on the other side.
I would try to convince him that a better view of the Big Ben would be afforded if we manage to step in to less crowded territories. London can overwhelm a visitor with its persistence of energy. But it does have neighbourhoods that taps parts of tourists generally concealed by routine.
We’d retrace our steps back to Bridge Street, crossing the Big Ben and turning left into Abingdon Street, where the sights of the Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the House of Commons would keep him and his camera busy. He is, meanwhile, no longer surprised to spot Thai restaurants or Pakistani / Bangladeshi eateries camouflaged by their Indian names right at the heart of London’s overheated property market. Nevertheless, cosmopolitanism has done little to change the pristine past and clarity of London’s Westminster neighbourhood. Or the weather. If you don’t like the weather here, a famous saying goes, just wait for five minutes.
We would then proceed towards Victoria Gardens, a place I’ve often considered one that resonates to a rhythm that makes it feel as though London has slowed down and paused, seated on the walls that overlook the Thames whilst observing a confounding mix of tourists on either side.
He’d soon find the perfect frame for his picture, the single most striking image of what has now been a long hunt for him – the Thames in the middle, the London Eye to its right, and the Big Ben to its left. And he’d break in to a smile.