Lon­don’s in­sid­ers and out­siders

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CATHERINE McMASTER

Lon­don is a sprawl of in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural stim­u­la­tion. But it’s also the only place I have vis­ited and lived where the im­age ex­ported is in­con­gru­ous to the re­al­ity.

Neatly pack­aged and mar­keted as the cos­mopoli­tan cap­i­tal of Europe, it’s a poly­glot and var­ie­gated cos­mos. Yet, there’s a darker side; Lon­don is a bub­ble al­most im­pos­si­ble to in­fil­trate. Nat­u­rally, tourists see Lon­don in a more flat­ter­ing light. Big Ben, Buck­ing­ham Palace and the Houses of Par­lia­ment are sites of won­der­ment and the city’s eclec­tic in­hab­i­tants are a source of gen­uine cu­rios­ity. Yet, for live-in Lon­don­ers, Le­ices­ter Square has been swal­lowed in drab kitsch, while Chelsea, hav­ing sadly lost its bo­hemian aes­thetic, is now pop­u­lated by re­al­ity TV stars with slick quiffs, too much cologne and voices clipped and curled by elo­cu­tion lessons.

I moved to Lon­don from Australia al­most 18 months ago and find my­self fus­ing more into the lo­cal stereo­type than I dared hope. That is, I’m can­tan­ker­ous and per­pet­u­ally ir­ri­tated, specif­i­cally with the swarm­ing popu- lous of en­thu­si­as­tic tourists. I wasn’t al­ways so cyn­i­cal but it’s a pro­tec­tive blan­ket all Lon­don­ers adopt.

I strug­gled in those early days and de­vel­oped a silent loathing for the city, its cru­elty and in­tol­er­ance, its shad­owy cyn­i­cism that re­minded me con­stantly I was still an out­sider. It was a time of baked beans on toast and un­sym­pa­thetic lo­cal ac­quain­tances. I shopped at cheap va­ri­ety stores and hoarded free­bie chuck-outs from the street. I walked ev­ery­where to avoid ex­or­bi­tant Tube fares and ate di­ges­tive bis­cuits for break­fast.

Dur­ing my first 12 months, I took on sev­eral in­ter­est­ing roles to fund my­self. I sold Ger­man fur­naces at a de­sign expo. My open­ing line? “Madam, do you know the ben­e­fits of mois­ture plus?” As­suredly, I re­ceived strange stares and quizzi­cally raised brows. I was em­ployed as a wait­ress at the Guard’s Polo Club at Wind­sor Great Park and was in­structed to wear tight white trousers and a polo shirt a size too small. The lo­cal elite weren’t there just for the booze and horses.

Like all great cap­i­tals, Lon­don is a voyeur’s haven. I am con­stantly en­thralled by the so­cial dy­nam­ics and in­ti­mate idio­syn­cra­sies of its myr­iad com­mu­ni­ties. Just as the streets of Paris are the cre­ative and artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion for artists and writ­ers alike, so is Lon­don, but in­sights are far more raw and cruel.

Yet there’s some­thing in­trin­sic that pulls peo­ple to the cap­i­tal. Per­haps it’s the nos­tal­gia of an ear­lier age. We pine for Dick­en­sian Lon­don, Shake­speare’s Globe, Plat­form 9 ¾, Anne Bo­leyn’s White Tower and the home of the in­fa­mous Krays.

Wher­ever you go, there’s a pot­pourri of in­ter­laced char­ac­ters. A walk along the Em­bank­ment re­veals bankers in made-to-mea­sure Ital­ian wool Sav­ile Row suits strolling non­cha­lantly past the scat­ter­ings of the home­less. French sum­mer-school kids with olive skin and nose pierc­ings smoke Camel cig­a­rettes on the pave­ment. Out of town­ers in their I Love Lon­don T-shirts am­ble idly. And the na­tives? They’ve got their heads down, briskly

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