I am in the northwest part of London as I write this. Yesterday I decided to take a walk through London from where I am in Willesden to the centre of the city in SOHO. It was a long walk taking me through many different neighbourhoods along the way. As the landscape and the amount of people slowly turned from the outskirts of the city to a more densely populated inner city buzz, the one constant that remained was the ubiquitous mobile technology attached to people’s ears and hands in every small nook and cranny of this wonderfully confusing maze of a city.
I didn’t take any photos, and as my phone remained firmly in my pocket with no available data anyhow, I was thrust back to a romantic time in the past when people used to speak to each other walking along the city streets.
It was a social experiment that never really was meant to be. For me I was headed to the London Palladium to meet up with a friend, it was a bitterly cold but dry day in winter, I had time on my side, so why not bundle up and trundle in.
About an hour into my walk the cold got the better of me, so I stopped in a hookah bar, for a cuppa. Now Let’s not confuse the two words here, the two letters at the end totally changes the type of bar I went to for a respite from the cold, and much like the mobile technology that has infiltrated every part of the city, these hookah bars seemed to be nearly everywhere along my six mile walk as well.
I remember being in Tunisia in a different life back in the 90’s and being coerced to join in for a drag on a hubbly bubbly as the locals called them. Not being a smoker I felt light headed and spent half of the time coughing. The mixed cultures and races in these places I saw along the way didn’t have any novices like I was back then. Everyone was puffing away without a cough to be heard. It sort of gave an otherworldliness international feel to the streets of London.
Every so often I had to stop to ask directions. Being a New Yorker I am used to a grid city, straight means straight in New York City. In London straight means follow the main road you are on, if it happens to veer off left at a roundabout, don’t continue straight, on the road that would seem to be the road you should follow, go left young man. Even the darn Thames River makes a ninety degree turn amongst many other wiggles and squiggles as it wends its way through the city. Oh for the wide straight Hudson!!
I must say Londoners are out there on the street, the few I was able to pry away from their screens asking for yet another point in the right direction were a bit astonished I walked from Willesden to where ever it was we stood at that precise moment. The interesting note for me was the vast majority of the people I asked how to get to the London Palladium, upwards of 95% of them, had never heard of it, and sadly, no one cheekily answered, “Practice”. I guess that is once again the New Yorker in me looking to get to Carnegie Hall!
I got magnificently lost in the city of Westminster. I was not near the opulent houses of parliament, but in an area that was tucked away somewhere on Edgeware road kinda reminding me of being in The Bronx in a strange sort of way. Walking through a common, which is a green space or park, then passing lots of independently-owned small shops and friendly shop owners who were very keen to put me on the right road to SOHO, but even there, they had never heard of The Palladium. My leisurely walk and stop for tea was now getting a bit longer because of my wrong turn, or should I say lack of a turn where I was told to go straight. Hmm would I make it by 7 to The Palladium, more to the point, did the venue really exist?
I was getting closer now and learning not to take directions too literally. Straight meant maybe straight. The road ends meant the road got smaller and changed names, but really didn’t end, but turned left for some random reason, or was it? London has organically grown over the centuries and streets and neighbourhoods were just added on as the city’s needs grew. So nowadays it can seem like a higgledy piggledy mess. Many Londoners profess not to know how to navigate their own city so well. Unless you are a cabby with “The Knowledge” that you studied many years to acquire, or a cycle courier with “The Guts” to get out there in the fray, just maybe that ubiquitous phone in everyone’s hands is London’s only way to get people to their destinations in this modern age.
To add to the confusion the tube map for the London Underground network, although excellent and cleverly depicted to aid anyone in getting around London by train, and the streets above have really not much to do with each other in reality. The London A to Z (pronounced ‘Ay to zed’) used to be tantamount to The Bible in America’s southern states, nobody would be without one. Every Londoner had one lurking in their flat or house somewhere for sure. To navigate the conundrum of streets, commons, circuses, parades, roundabouts and whatever else this wonderful place could throw at you, it was a must. The tube map would get you exactly to where you wanted to be, but never overlay the maps to compare or your head will start to spin faster than a London cyclists wheels!
I was also too aware of being in an international city, so many of the people could have been tourists. Plus London, like New York, has a pretty diverse population. So besides tapping on shoulders of many people who hadn’t heard of The Palladium, I also came up with quite a few blank stares from people who seemed like they never heard of English either. Although I must admit it was quite comforting to hear so many languages being spoken on the street, another similarity with that other big metropolis just over the Atlantic a few thousand miles from where I stood, set out in a nice easy grid system!
My other experiment, besides the cultural difference between New Yorkers and Londoners, was trying to find people without headphones in their ears or a phone glued to their hands. Interestingly when I did find someone who wasn’t plugged in the conversation seemed more fluid and genuine. The few times I had to interrupt someone from their screen, I was definitely the rude intruder, but was always given an answer, albeit abruptly so they could get back to the person firmly attached to their screen somewhere else. I met a few people that were open for a conversation or to walk a block or two with me and have a chat. Inevitably every time they were a bit older, and weren’t plugged in, but were definitely tuned in, if you know what I mean.
I eventually made it to The Palladium, and thankfully when I got to popular places like Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square or Marble Arch people started to recognise the name Palladium. Although when I knew I was really close and right in SOHO with the hour quickly approaching for my rendezvous I nipped into a shop and asked the young security guard where The Palladium was, funnily enough he never heard of it, but very obligingly got out his mobile phone clicked onto Google maps and walked outside the door with me and pointed to a road 25 yards from the shop and said, “Go right at that corner, and then your first left and it should be right there.” Ah, technology, would we all really be lost without it?
Thanks for walking with me, until next time.