London’s little surprises and lack thereof

Happening upon Wilmington Square with its lone dog walkers, and Lloyd Square with its jabbing pair of boxers, made me reflect why London is so dear to me.

The one thing that’s not a surprise

I’m currently sat indoors wearing my winter coat. I often wonder what to do with it, as I lug it around. Useless thing. Well, it’s come in handy today, on what feels like a November day. I feel chills down to my bones. And M says I’m prone to exaggeration? He’s right.

But it is chilly.

Chilly weather in August? In London? Of course, it is.

It’s as routine – the UK experiencing poor weather in August – as cancelling a picnic with friends or being rained on at a barbecue. It’s as customary as sitting down at a thrice-rearranged picnic party and holding onto the paper plates and napkins in the blustery winds.

But London has served up some exceptional surprises these past few weeks…

Marylebone near Regents Park

In fact, if you allow me, that’s one other thing that doesn’t surprise me – London’s unrivalled ability to present one magical surprise after another, down a city lane or behind a Bloomsbury terrace.

I’m reminded of fictional characters Edmund and Lucy when they emerge from the back of C.S Lewis’s famous wardrobe; when Narnia’s white wilderness reveals itself itself as sweetly as the Turkish Delight Edmund finds himself feasting on when he meets the Snow Queen.

That’s me – Edmund chowing down Turkish Delight – when I stumble on another London, another city square, another one of its villages.

The surprise walks

The other day, I was feeling cobwebby, but I delighted in being dopey. I knew I needed to reach Clerkenwell but for the life of me now, I can’t remember where I was coming from and what the direct path to get to Clerkenwell would have been, even if I’d stuck to it. Rare are these moments in life where we don’t feel we need to be anywhere specific, certainly not at a specific point in time, and we relish our own company as much as we relish the afternoon sun.

It wasn’t a wakeful state, but I revelled in losing myself, one moment turning left, the next absently staring at unknown avenues, pondering aimlessly which way to turn.

I stared at one of the Transport for London plinths detailing where I was on the map, but the map was on a strange axis as if Finsbury and Pentonville were the very centre of London – a new Meridian Line. In this cartographical canard, Holborn was to the north. Counter-intuitively, Blackfriars was located to the west. Before I knew it, I realised I must have been staring at the map for close to ten minutes, tilting my head this way and that. I wondered how I’d never come to previously know these streets.

The unanticipated confluence of WC1 and EC1 on streets from a film-set “take” on Edwardian London, where the Boroughs of Camden, Islington and Westminster converge like London’s oldest rivers.

Pentonville and Finsbury are inviting, as are parts of St Luke’s.

I don’t know why, but in the past I’ve always associated the Islington area with rainy Sunday afternoons and draughty walks up the highest escalator in Europe (at Angel tube station).

But happening upon Wilmington Square with its lone dog walkers, and Lloyd Square with its jabbing pair of nude-from-the-waist boxers, made me reflect why London is so dear to me. It’s so hard to fathom. It’s so endlessly unpredictable and, for all the dead ends – and despite the dead-beat atmosphere in some of its less salubrious districts – it compels one to return, and return again.

There was Myddleton Square with its handsome garden, and Amwell Street populated with enticing cafes and authentic Turkish barbers. These days barbers look like engineers with their visors, funnelling their way through tufts of hair.

And yet it wouldn’t be the same experience without an argument in a taxi

Anyone who knows me well, knows for the most part, I’m patient. I hope most of my friends would attest to the fact that I’m mostly civil and friendly to strangers or professionals providing a service.

Anyone who knows me really well, though, knows I have a tolerance threshold that, once breached, sees me turn quite Jekyll and Hyde. And so I come to, what for me at least, feels like an inevitable anecdote about falling out with a taxi driver and falling – quite literally – out of a taxi. So here’s one of the events this past few days that unfortunately didn’t come as too much of a surprise.

I always seem to have an anecdote on trips of mine about a taxi journey going disastrously wrong. It doesn’t take me long to realise the common denominator in all these experiences is, er, – me.

In yesterday’s latest episode, I was in Edgware where diluvian scenes greeted me as I got into an Uber outside my uncle and aunt’s residential home. The driver asked where I was going.

I explained the destination would be on his GPS screen if he cared to look at it, but I clarified that I was going to Clerkenwell. He then said very aggressively that he wouldn’t drive through the congestion zone and he wasn’t keen on the trip. By this point, I’d placed all my bags in his boot and managed to wipe myself down after getting caught in the rain storms.

He asked me whether I was prepared to pay the extra 15 pounds it would cost him to enter the congestion zone. I firmly, but politely, asked the driver why he had picked me up if he wasn’t prepared to drive to Clerkenwell. He replied – curtly.

“I didn’t look at the screen – I didn’t have my glasses on.”

I wasn’t impressed. And, to be fair, neither was he. Sometimes in life, we just don’t take to people. And this driver didn’t take to me. He insisted I wear my mask, which of course I was about to do, but he hadn’t given me a chance to settle as he moaned about my destination. I said I would wear mine, but I would like him to reciprocate and wear his, at which, he railed I was this and that, and that the trip was cancelled. Without seeking my agreement, he stormed out, lifted my heavy bags from the boot and dumped them on the sodden pavement.

I trudged to a bus shelter in Burnt Oak and waited. Waited for the rains to stop.

London has experienced such extreme contrasts in weather conditions this August.

Now Uber are sending me endless messages from agents – principally someone called Barry – asking me to testify as to what went wrong. I feel like the plaintiff in a court case. The fact my Uncle is called Barry and at the end of our afternoon tea, he was keen to return to his computer to continue with a digital project, added to the unreal ness of the whole episode. Maybe my Uncle’s moonlighting as an employee at Uber?

The medieval and the ultra-modern

And so back to Clerkenwell with its unhurried street life. The citadel of media companies and highfalutin’ corporate agencies, in a pandemic it’s genteel and at times almost gothic. Long shadows form as street furniture looms unaccompanied by passing footsteps.

On some of the streets surrounding Sekforde Street where M and I stayed, street directions lit at night flickered and I was alone, save the occasional workman in a high vis gilet.

I was enamoured with Sans Walk, Woodbridge Street, Corporation Row, Hayward’s Place, Spa Fields and Bowling Green Lane.

Late one night, I took some photographs and took in St James’s Clerkenwell, where a nunnery once existed in the 12th century. It was here that springs gave Clerkenwell its name during Henry II’s reign and where parish clerks used to perform ‘mystery plays’, based on biblical themes, sometimes in the presence of Royalty. Henry VIII’s dissolution brought new challenges and opportunities but Christian life continues nearly a millennia later. Some of the Protestant Martyrs burned at Smithfields’, and Catholics too, are commemorated.

No one was around and I gloried observing the medieval masterpiece through its locked gates.

I’ve blogged elsewhere about Clerkenwell’s history but one of the things I found out was that the Red Bull theatre was located here. As Wikipedia states, the Red Bull was an inn-yard conversion erected in Clerkenwell, London operating in the 17th century. For more than four decades, it entertained audiences drawn primarily from the City and its suburbs, developing a reputation over the years for rowdiness. After Parliament closed the theatres in 1642, it continued to host illegal performances intermittently, and when the theatres reopened after the Restoration, it became a legitimate venue again. There is a myth that it burned down in the Great Fire of London but the direct reason for its end is unclear.

There was a bomb explosion which resulted in fatalities in Bowling Green Lane as Fenians attempted a prison escape in the 19th century. Many were injured including in neighbouring street – Corporation Row.

You can see some of the old entrances to Clerkenwell’s notorious prisons where today late 19th century or early 20th century arches signpost infants and school keepers into their courtyards (or today, their playgrounds).

Step a bit further, and you come across the sleek and not so conspicuous entrance to Zara Hadid’s architectural firm, and ultra modern offices for fashion brand, Alexander McQueen.

I serendipitously stepped into a Korean cafe which served sweet chilli and garlic chicken drumsticks opposite the Alexander McQueen offices: another sign of ultra-modern London, and yet, a sign too, that things remain precarious as the economy teeters. Except for me, the guy running the place seemed quietly anxious.

Simply no one was around.

And in London, at the height of the summer tourist season, that’s a most unwelcome surprise.

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.