Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Surfing on the Thames

There’s a little bird that sits on my shoulder, urging me to go with my gut. For months now I have ignored this bird, my instincts, much to my later chagrin. This time, I’ve decided to follow this bird’s sage advice, and go to Paris. I can hear London, envious, jealously guarding its territory. Our love affair has gone on to a new level in the past two days. In fact, I feel we have moved beyond the surface, into the crevices of our inner beings. In London’s case, Elephant & Castle. My new friend, with whom I spent a lovely afternoon wandering the city, called it London’s asshole, a bit off the beaten track, as she so elegantly put it, as we entered the E&C shopping centre. This reminded me ever so slightly of the Rexdale Mall in north-west Toronto, cheap, low-quality gear stuffed into small stores lining a one-floor walk-up. But that was before the Wal-Mart went in and the rest of the mall was razed to the ground. What can I say, it was a big Wal-Mart, with even bigger hopes. Back to my tryst with London though, having just strolled through Trafalgar Square, walked the Thames footpath and crossed the Jubilee Bridge, E&C, located in Walworth, was a much-needed slice of London’s vraie vie. No tourists, only gritty everydayness around the corner, the type that invites contempt from the authorities, indeed, have I ever seen more surveillance cameras, CCTV in security-speak, in one concentrated area? There they hang, off bridges, overpasses, street lamps, tube stations, not that there are many of these in the south, but you get the picture.

This also reminded me of the every day battle to make ends meet, it’s not all dogs and ponies in the metropolis after all, and E&C points to this social and racial inequality much better than posh-ole Notting Hill ever will, at least if you’re temporarily willing to overlook who’s working at McDonald’s and Morrison ‘round the hill. I have a feeling they don’t live in that borough. Call me cynical.

Other than my ultra-wealthy ‘hood, I had yet to walk through a London borough where people actually live. The most remarkable aspect of Walworth to me was the number of people of colour. Somehow, the city became darker the deeper into the south bank I went, so much so that people speaking Somali, Arabic and French seemed to outnumber those speaking English as I walked down Walworth Street, home of Charlie Chaplin, towards my friend’s flat. Funny thing racial segregation, for something that almost all public officials and city planners would deny occurs, it seems reliably dependable in Western urban centres.

The other noteworthy aspect of Walworth was the sheer live-ability of the place. I didn’t peak into any of the council-housing blocks of course, but the trees lining the side-streets and the green parks and squares struck me as lovely odes to a time long-since past. To my surprise, the parks were empty as we headed to the nearest tube station, Kennington, ironically surrounded by one of the wealthiest areas of the city. My friend explained that the parks were so, even at this after-work hour, as people just didn’t feel safe in public places in this part of town. This was beginning to sound familiar.

After today, I feel my relationship with London has matured. I have passed through the honeymoon stage, I can feel the passion waning, and into a more meaningful place of attraction. London opened up to me like never before, or perhaps I opened up to it, and I saw parts of it that might normally turn one off to its charm. I saw that London doesn’t always treat its people very well. But, what this has done is strengthened my resolve to get to know it even better. Tomorrow I’ll ride the Thames and go down to Greenwich, home of the central meridian. Maybe I’ll gain more insight into what makes this city tick while riding her waves. I wish I meant surfing, but despite the summery weather, the Thames hardly strikes me as an appealing destination for my surfboard. Maybe that’s another knock against London, it ain’t Hawaii.

Back to Paris. On the tube today I spoke to a few Parisians, I don’t think I’ve heard this much French in a city outside of Montréal and Québec, and I told them I was thinking of visiting their city. One of them looked at me, and said, resolutely, “Paris est la plus belle ville du monde.” Typical French arrogance you might say. I say, on the other hand, that the look in her eye, not of pride or pretension, but of pure admiration, sold me on the spot. I can almost see the Eiffel Tower from my Notting Hill window.

é + sur le sofa


Beth in the sky said...

Oh your South London friend does sound lovely. I might have to look her up when I am there in May.
Paris is AMAZING and if you have not done it yet, it is time! I will e-mail you some "vrai Paris" walking tours if you end up there, and I do recommend that you do. The Parisians weren't being arrogant, they were being honest....

SubVerse said...

This post is beautiful!

Anonymous said...

You may be interested to know there's quite a good wikipedia page on the elephant - I copied some of it below... I remember trying to explain this but I couldn't quite remember what I was saying.
Check it out.


The name of the area derives from a pub of the same name in the area. The earliest surviving record of the pub's name is in the Court Leet Book of the Manor of Walworth. The court had met at "Elephant and Castle, Newington" on 21 March 1765. An external sign displayed in 2006 asserts that the pub was rebuilt in 1816 and 1898, although the present building, that offers budget accommodation on upper floors, appears to be of mid-20th Century construction.
The name itself predates this account. Apocryphally, it is a corruption of the Spanish Infanta de Castilla, meaning the eldest daughter of a monarch, who had supposedly landed by Royal Barge in Newington