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Episode 8: Going Underground

On day three I made my way to North London, where I later stayed the night in a very unremarkable bed and breakfast. At least it was far from any maddening crowd. I was there for two reasons. 

Most important was a trip to Wembley Stadium. But in the end, equally important was a trip on the Underground to central London. The Jam’s Going Underground is a thinly veiled message about consumerism and politics in post punk Thatcherite Britain and Paul Weller’s deeply seated desire for social change. Paul Weller is a wonderful songwriter and Going Underground is one his best. The song is awesome but the London Underground is more awesome. Growing up in Birmingham, the most amazing thing in the line of public transport was a double-decker bus trip into the city centre. This journey meant the bus travelling over a flyover that elevated passengers maybe 30 feet above the traffic below for about 200 yards. If you were lucky, you could be sitting on the top deck at the front of the bus in the seat directly over the driver’s head. Just for a few seconds, just as the bus mounted and travelled up the flyover, you felt like you were the pilot of a Boeing 747. It was the greatest joy of my childhood and paints a poor picture of the low levels of joy that I experienced during that time. But I loved it. The flyover is gone now and replaced by a huge confusing roundabout. A sad loss…

The first time I rode the London Underground it felt like I was on a submarine. Affectionately called the Tube, it is a justifiably iconic mode of transport. Birmingham’s 747 feeling lasted maybe five seconds, while the Tube’s under the sea submarine sensation lasted for half an hour. Throughout the Tube journey I always knew that above me, and sometimes 200 hundred feet above me, were roads, cars, buses, houses, offices and literally millions of people going about their daily business. This added to the subterranean enchantment that I had felt as an eight-year-old boy and, if possible, even more so nearly 50 years later. I still felt like Neptune riding a chariot carried on the back of four swordfish. The very first time that I rode on the Tube from Wembley to Piccadilly Circus and then rode the escalators back up to the surface, when I came out of the station’s entrance, I fully expected the crowd to burst into rapturous applause. Almost as if we were surfacing from a huge adventure from the centre of the Earth. Although I know some of my eight-year-old class mates felt the same as me, it was just me who jumped up and cheered. Just as if I had just bought a Toyota and was celebrating with that iconic advertising leap into the air. I remember exclaiming, mid-leap, and in very young voice, “FUCK THAT WAS GREAT”. 

Nearly 50 years later I could no longer jump, but I did still mumble under my breath, “fuck that was great” and I did feel like I was on lighter feet. Yes, 30 minutes is a long time to do the nine miles from Wembley to Piccadilly Circus, but it’s worth every second of the travel and the additional joyful minutes descending and ascending the old wooden monolithic escalators.

I love the London Underground. What I love almost the most is watching my fellow travellers. I have always been a people-watcher, and the Tube gives you a place and space that allows maximum observation opportunities. I enjoy the angst on a Londoner’s face when they run breathlessly on to the platform five seconds too late for their Tube. They vainly watch the train speeding off down the tunnel, standing there forlornly waving and hoping for just a few seconds that it will stop and come back for them. It never does; but they always hope it might. Then they turn around with a dissolute sadness on their faces like Santa has left them present-less. This look deepens to disgust when they look up to see that the next train is still over four minutes away. Then starts the calculations plain on their faces; mouths silently mouthing the algebraic sums. They try to work out if re-escalating to Starbucks, getting a two-shot, soy milk latte with a lemon twist, de-escalating back down to the platform will take less than four minutes. It’s like watching your dog trying to lick the rain drops off your window from the inside.

I really like that each Underground station platform feels like you have travelled midway to hell. You have had to squeeze through the station turnstile like cattle through a drenching mill. Then you get to go down as many as four ancient wooden escalators and jump on the Tube, sometimes just before the doors close. Just like you are leaping into the gaping mouth of a blue whale. Then you feel like you are on the devil’s train, gliding along the River Styx; arriving at journey’s end only to escape up even more ancient and sometimes more numerous escalators, like you are escaping Dante’s inferno and ascending into Heaven. It’s like a transport adaption of “The Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Sorry Birmingham buses route 188, I love the Tube.

Another great benefit is watching the lives being partially lived out in every Tube compartment. Lives lived to a schedule that’s measured in split seconds but lived in a city full of unavoidable hours of delays. Each Tube compartment can have well over 200 people in it. On any Tube compartment you can see travellers that describe London’s demographic spectrum almost perfectly. The Tube compartment I travelled on sadly had homeless people, more than I expected. They were travelling with all their worldly goods on a luggage trolley or stuffed into a ripped rucksack; sleeping bag, tent, clothes, plastic bags and newspapers. Clothes that were worn thin but not so thin that they could afford to be discarded. These homeless people were wearing layers of clothes, even in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime summer. Then, sitting by them, if not quite beside them, were aspirational interviewees. Young people and some older folk obviously off to interviews, nervously scanning resumes while trying to keep their clothes clean and their shoes unscuffed. All living in personal environments containing clouds of antiperspirant and mouthwash fumes. Also in my compartment were children of various ages who were going to, or absconding from schools; all dressed in uniforms that met their particular school’s desire for recognition. And then there were the various forms of London’s drones. The workers also uniformed all on their way to respective shift changes, or starts of working days, all warily watching each station as if approaching ravenous ogres eager to consume their days. 

Eventually each worker girds their loins and climbs out the closing doors at the last possible second, hoping that today’s personal heat shield keeps their own personal dragons at bay. Among the drones were sales people on their way to meetings. Some travelling solo mouthing their spiels and hoping they had all the right answers. Like gunslingers riding into town on their own silver Tube stallion. Laptops grimly clasped to their sides, they were wearing knock-off Armani suits, chafing wherever the offending sackcloth/nylon touches any skin. Sales people looking every bit the modern rayon warrior, fighting the bad fight while all the time craving a reachable target and a livable wage. Some travellers were whole sales teams gathered around each other talking strategy. Like a bunch of vultures circling a dying carcass. Wondering how to get the buyer to lunch and which part of the presentation had the sign-off page. Who had the pristine leave-behind copy secreted safely within their laptop bag and who had the extra memory sticks?

Then there were a few middle management people wearing power suits and acres of stress on botoxed faces, trout pout lips, wrinkle-free alabaster foreheads. Adorned with badly dyed and madly cut hairstyles. All of them looking like the before models from the Nivea moisturiser commercials but with slightly orange complexions. Although they were both male and female, they were pretty much imperceptible from each other. Both sets wanting to steal each other’s female and male advantages while maintaining a perceived gender advantage. All of them standing in their own defined space with their necks visibly bent, as if they were jammed squarely and unfairly, hard up under their self-imposed glass ceilings. Every ten seconds scanning iPhones like life literally started and ended right there in the depths of their hands. Everything pulsing from the most important apple since the Garden of Eden. 

Then I spotted, well truthfully overheard the one deep end person. In this little silver pond orbiting the nether regions of London, this was the big fish. The king of all they survey. Yes king, there are no queens. Even the females are kings when you get this deep. Sitting almost spread-eagled but in good clothes, real Armani is very much last decade for them. Like hungryish sharks in a pool, they are out cruising for lunch but doing so aurally via their phone for all to hear and hate. “Nice drop of beaujolais and a blue steak at the new place just off the Mall?”. Broadcasting all this unwarranted, unwanted and very much despised information to us plebs and into a diamond encrusted iPhone 14sx2 while taking ham-like glances every 10 seconds at the Rolex Oyster interspersed with condescending glances at us lesser fish. The sticklebacks in his pond. The rest of us pretend to ignore Nigella’s ignorance. But we have all just seen a new pictorial thesaurus synonym for “Cunt”. Yes, every compartment on the Underground is a zoo of humanity screaming blithe inhumanity and each dying a little bit with every passing station. I loved the Underground on my first visit and even more so on probably my last journey.

I spent the first 24 years of my life deriding anything south of Watford in the same manner a big brother would never cede power to a little brother. Stating that London was in fact the most dynamic city in Britain would be like ashes in my mouth. I decided early on that all the negative things about London were the only things that mattered. I spent many fruitless hours claiming that Digbeth Civic Hall is a better place for seeing a concert than the Hammersmith Odeon. That alone takes some blind faith. But I tried manfully for many years to convince mostly myself that nothing good ever happened in London. Failing mostly, even in persuading me, but still taking the Father Christmas is real line, but with everything north of Watford is gold replacing Santa in my refrain. Watford is just 16 miles north of London but sits as the dividing line between north and south. This imagined dividing line was as important to my 20th Century British sensibilities as was the Mason Dixon line to slavery in 18th Century USA. Both divided north from south and our north of Watford separated us from the southern vermin and the Mason Dixie divided New York from the southern dim-witted red necks. That first few days of my Farewell Tour finally dissolved my view of London in the same way that the forthcoming months would make the southern states of America one of my favourite parts of the whole world.

In 2018, standing in Piccadilly Circus, I surveyed the multitude of humanity somewhat living in harmony while under the surface ready to climb over one another’s corpses the second a bomb goes off. Tourists and recent immigrants all swirling around locals and second and third generation British; like a whisky sour cocktail. Each exuding their own flavours, all trying to subliminally overpower one another. But deep-down, real whisky will never taste like lemon any more than egg white will taste like whisky.
I stood there amazed at the number of human cocktails and how busy and small that everything was. I know and have said that my only point of reference was as an eight-year-old. But still, it all seemed so much smaller than I remembered. I stepped across the road to take some pictures for I have no plans to ever return. I manfully stood trying to capture Piccadilly Circus at its most manic. I found myself unknowingly standing in a queue. The British do queues like no one else. Since the 1896 Olympics, Great Britain could have won every single gold, silver and bronze for queuing. I did my bit for the queue, and somehow, I found myself getting onto and then sitting on the top deck of an iconic London tourist open top bus. In London this can end up in frost bite quicker than skinny dipping at Everest base camp. Fortunately, 2018 was a remarkable summer.

London is a very compact city. The Romans built and called it Londonium in AD61 but it was another thousand years before it became the capital city of England. Because of Roman city walls, it has meant that a large amount of worldwide recognisable buildings are within a matter of hundreds of yards of each other. This means that every minute or so, the passengers changed sides of the bus to get pictures of Trafalgar Square, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Regents Park, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. I enjoyed watching the oohs and ahhs in a myriad of languages, so much so I didn’t take much notice of the picture book of history rolling past me outside until my third circuit. There is something strangely gratifying about watching a Japanese tourist lifting his four-year-old son and telling him to wave to the Queen. No, I don’t speak Japanese but I was not so bad at charades that I couldn’t understand all the actions.

By the way, no the Queen was not at the Palace. She must have been at one of her other many palaces, castles, boats or planes; or maybe she was off somewhere mindlessly waving at her public who pour millions of pounds into the royal purse every year. Seventy-five per cent of the bus was waving in vain. The way you know that queeny or now kingy is at home is that the royal standard flies over Buckingham Palace, not the Union Jack. I have never been a royalist, but grudgingly will agree she did a good job. What I hate is the retinue of fourth cousins by third marriage, blood-sucking leeches sponging off the publicly funded royal purse. They get to pop into Chelsea by chauffeur-driven Mercedes, while just because of birth disadvantages another gets to take a chauffeur-driven Mercedes in the form of the number 87 bus to the Chelsea social security office. If the King or Queen wants the public to support some blood-sucking leech, let them sign on and do some real work that does not include cutting ribbons and waving at people.
I found myself slightly smitten at London’s impossibly too numerous and recognisable attractions. 

London is like the spoilt oldest child who got everything that they wanted and as a result just have a messy bedroom full of stuff, but no friends, just tourists who only come to see what they have, not who they are. In London you will find most of Britain’s historical, political, cultural, sporting and entertainment icons. But they all seemed tired of shouting and now just jostle slightly for attention with one another. But each not really wanting to be noticed and so none of London’s tourist attractions were trying hard to suck me off the tourist bus that chauffeured me past the landmarks. In America, they will put a sign in the street announcing that Jesse James once played cards in a saloon that was once in a certain spot 150 years ago. In London, it’s hard to find anything that tells you Henry 8th had Thomas Moore beheaded here. Or that Winston Churchill lived in such and such place during the war. Or that Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in a house on a street that the open-topped bus drove past. But all these things happened and much, much, much more that changed the whole wide world. 

The last great empire that ruled over one third of the world was governed from this city. The biggest empire the world ever saw, it was so vast that the sun never set on it. Yes, we Brits did do despicable things, and we still have a lot of stuff that really belongs in other places. But look on the bright side, if we stole something from you, you can come and see it and lots and lots of other stuff we also stole, then pop up the road and wave to a place where the Queen is not staying. All this before lunch.

And just like that, being jealous of London faded away from me. For the first time in my life, I was kind of sorry that London carried the burden of fame. In Birmingham we have things like the jewellery quarter housing craftsmanship that still to this day puts most of the world to shame. A quarter mile of jewellery artisans that truly go unnoticed. In 1900, Birmingham had more gold and silver than any other city in the world, producing jewellery for the world. Beside the jewellery quarter was the gun quarter and we had more gunpowder and armoury than any other city in the world. BSA actually stands for Birmingham Small Arms and for a good while in the early 1900s it alone produced more small arms right up to large artillery than any other city in the world. At the turn of the century, BSA was producing 1200 rifles a week alongside hundreds of other guns small arms and shotguns and ironically hundreds of safety bicycles. Between 1900 and 1980 within 40 miles of Birmingham’s city centre were factories that produced Jaguar, Rover, Triumph, Morris, Riley, Wolseley, Austin, MG, Morgan, Talbot, Chrysler and Vauxhall cars. Add to that motorcycles of BSA, Triumph, Norton, AJS, Allard, Enfield, Swift, Sunbeam, Villiers, Raleigh and Velocette, and Birmingham is the true motor city.

In Birmingham we have, but don’t boast of, great multi-cultural markets, easy-to-reach sporting facilities, a city with more miles of canals than Venice but a boring reputation that serves us well. Our science and natural history museums are awesome. But if everybody knew, then I couldn’t wander right up to and touch the land speed record car the Railton Special. For over 25 years, it was the fastest vehicle on the planet and I can walk right up to it. When I was younger, you could actually climb inside the giant 25-foot-long fuselage. You were not allowed to, but lying there hiding while a teacher ran haphazardly round the steam engine exhibits looking in vain for me were some of the best minutes of my childhood. Even now, they have no one around to spoil my view or tell me to get out of the cockpit of the resident Spitfire. Right now, there is no snarky museum guard or resident paleontologist to stop me taking a selfie of me wearing the fossilised skull of a baby brontosaurus. No people, there is nothing to see in Birmingham; stay in London waving to where the Queen isn’t.

I was glad all these people were in London, but surprisingly I was glad I was in London too. I don’t intend returning to London anytime, at least not anytime soon, so I was glad that my last trip was like this. An unnaturally beautiful sunny English summer’s morning. Sitting top deck of a topless London big red double-decker bus; just majestically floating past all of London’s tourist attractions. Never once giving into the temptation to get off and dig deeper under the surface. Previous attempts never went well. Trying to understand why beefeaters still wore 14th century skirts and guarded a tower of London that was now only home to a dozen ravens. Walking around museums with names like Tate Modern trying to understand the artistic worth of a human shit sitting on a brick. 

Wondering how ceramics moved from being plates for sale at Sainsburys to ceramic exhibitions. I wasn’t interested in spending a couple of hours wandering around the Natural History Museum looking at all the world’s treasures that we stole from the peoples of the world over the centuries. How come we don’t just give back all the things we stole and let all the homeless people sleep there instead? Right there on the label of every antiquity is where it was from and who it belongs to but we still don’t send any of it back. If I stole a car and then stuck a big sign in the window saying where and who I stole it from, I’d be in prison. Yet the Natural History Museum is seen as a very respectable establishment instead of the scene of thousands of crimes. I also wasn’t interested in delving into over-priced and over-hyped shops that left you with Harrods plastic bags, and a jacket that was so quickly out of fashion you were still paying the credit card bill when customers of the charity shop you donated it to wouldn’t even buy it.

After three times round I got up and stumbled downstairs to try to pay and get off at Piccadilly Circus. I opened my wallet to pay and the driver told me I had paid when I got on. I plainly remember taking a picture of the driver and past him to the statue of Eros that stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus but definitely not paying. It appears my Japanese friend with four-year-old in tow unknowingly paid my 27-pound day ticket. Well at least he now knew how to tell when the Queen was in residence … I descended back from midway to hell and retraced my journey to Wembley and on to Wembley Stadium. I had an appointment with the F.A. Cup.

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