I got out the Daytona, Saturday morning and rode down into London. I called in at a friend's place, changed into some walking boots and put on a rucksack, and then went for a hike around the city. I walked from Drayton Park down to St Pancras, where I dropped in at the British Library to look at a new exhibition of medieval manuscripts - fourteenth century Manga - amazing stuff. I used to think this kind of art was boring. Doh!
I pushed on through Bloomsbury, past the British Museum, into the West End and Trafalgar Square, and then on down Whitehall to Westminster and Pimlico. As I paced it out along The Embankment at Millbank (a fairly bleak part of town) a set of mega-speakers somewhere near the London Eye were blasting out music right across the river. The volume was tremendous. (I don't suppose the buskers made much money that evening.)
I scooted across the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, past the weird MI5/MI6 building and dropped into the Triumph dealer under the railway arches for a quick shuftie to see if there was anything worth looking at. I cut through the station tunnel, up past the City Farm and the site of the eighteenth-century pleasure gardens to Lambeth and the Imperial War Museum. I hadn't intended to visit the museum but just happened to need a widdle as I was passing by. Having made use of its hospitality, I spent a couple of hours till closing time looking at the holocaust exhibition. (It was even more stomach churning than I'd been led to believe!). The Imperial War Museum is housed in a large building which was once the home of the Bethlehem Hospital or 'Bedlam' for short - the city's principal 'lunatic asylum'. Some things don't change, I guess. I walked on to St George's Circus where at the end of the 18th century, 'good' King George's troops massacred a huge crowd of people gathered for a 'Wilks and Liberty' protest. From there I headed back west towards Waterloo and the South Bank to get something to eat. And then it was (and only then) that I realised it must be New Year's Eve.
OK, I know. So, I must have eaten too much christmas pudding and watched too many DVDs over the last week and had too much time with nothing much to do, but I'd really forgotten what day it was. One day just flows into another at Christmas time. The first clue to the date was a huge metallic clanking sound all around me as hundreds of blokes in flourescent jackets were busy erecting crowd control barriers in streets and squares all across the South Bank and Bankside areas and, as I later found out, as far north on the other side of the river as Piccadilly Circus. New Year's festivities in the West End are traditional, and in recent years our Boris (the distinctly lunatic Mayor of London) has put on a spectacular fireworks display down on the river. The BBC were out, as usual, broadcasting the festivities on giant screens in Trafalgar Square.
Even by Europen standards, London is an unusual city, and for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, no-one has ever been able to plan it. As a result it has no real centre, just lots of districts, each with its open and closed spaces. This means tht there is no single area for people to congregate. It's really quite an anarchic place.
European cities usually get planned as a result of war, revolution or fire, and London has seen plenty of those. It was bombed to pieces in the last war and has been burned to the ground more times than anyone can count but despite all the efforts of the authorities, no-one has ever been able to force any rational order on it. They've tried, and failed. London crowds are like that too. They lack focus. And crowd management in the city is a nightmare for the police. How do you get a lot of people in an out of a city whose roads are narrow and tend to wiggle about as though they have no idea where they are going?
By the time I hit the giant Imax cinema at Waterloo, there were hundreds of security people milling about the streets in little groups of four or five. At the Waterloo Cut I listened in as a group of about thirty of them were getting a talk about looking out for knives. (Knife carrying is getting to be a problem, in parts of South London in particular). Everywhere the loud metallic clatter continued, as more and more barriers went up to channel people into and out of the city in ways that the roads themselves would fail to do.
I couldn't get anything to eat at the South Bank concert halls as all the restaurants near the river had closed down early. Instead I had to hurry across Hungerford Bridge and on to Leicester Square. I never get tired of the views up and down river, no-matter how often I cross it, but tonight my eyes were fixed on the far side and the paving slabs beneath my feet. I needed to get food. I cut through Charing Cross station to St Martins in the Fields and then headed for a favourite eating place just off Leicester Square. Once inside I shared a table with an Arab family. They were going down to the river for the entertainment. The two sprogs were wide-eyed with excitement, and their dad was pretty wired himself. Mum just giggled a lot.
There were relatively few people around when I had entered the restaurant. When I came out there were thousands. I had to push my way northwards against a tide of party-goers making their way down to the river for the fireworks - and the binge drinking, brawls, general hullabaloo and merry making. I passed packs of half-naked London lasses, frivolous in their spangly glad-rags, and foreign visitors from warmer parts of the world bulked up in their padded jackets against this mildest of northern climates. There were a lot of excited but sober-looking families, and mindlessly giggling teenage lads on the look-out for god knows what kind of entertainment.
I love big events but I came down to Central London for the New Year's festivities several years go and never want to do it again. It's a phenomenal atmosphere, but down by the river, on the bridges and embankments and in the waterside gardens where it all kicks off, you get packed into the crowd so tightly that you can't even raise your arms. If you get squashed up against some nutter off his head on booze or drugs life can get pretty hair-raising. And getting out of the city when it's all over can be pretty scary, too. On my way back to the station, I spent an hour squeezed between people all trying to get across Hungerford Bridge.
As I made my way northwards against the tide of people, the West End and Soho took on a strange empty appearance - empty because there were no cars. All the roads in the central West End had been closed off. Many of the tube stations near the river had shutters across their entrances. The crowd was coming in by foot. On New Year's Night, the busses run into and out of the city all night long but they don't come down to the river. You have to pick them up further out. After 11.00 pm they are all free. But London without cars is a strange experience; like bread without butter.
Once I hit Holborn, the crowds were less dense, and there were a few vehicles sheepishly roaming about. The boroughs crowding around the inner cities of London and Westminster began to take on their usual severe and spooky night-time appearance. London darkness is not like the darkness in other places. It's like polished tar. It's casts a dense shiney blackness over everything, and it glitters with highlights. It's hypnotic, and attractive too, in an odd sort of way, but not beautiful. Some of the strangeness of London at night comes from the narrow, chaotic quality of the city streets and some from its lighting. Many central parts are still lit by gas lamp. At dusk you can hear the hiss and pop as the old-fashioned mantles flicker into life before they start to cast an eerie glow over the buildings and streets.
By the time I got back to the bike up at Drayton Park it was nearly 11.00 and I was knackered. I was tempted to accept an offer to stay overnight, but though I was tired I was also wound up tight and still wanting to move. The traffic was light on the way home and I began to feel more mellowed out. There's nothing like a fast night ride to clear your mind.
“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley SV-Wolf's Bike Blog