Goodbye Piccadilly, hello bitter City

Last month, the magazine I work for was bought by a competitor. Thankfully, our new owner wanted to keep the team we had together because we produced good content and our business model was profitable.

The problem was, it meant we had to move offices – I used to work in Piccadilly Circus, near the Trocadero, and we were moving to the City, near Cannon Street.

The Horses of Helios on Haymarket

It’s strange how a person’s feelings towards a place can change so drastically over time. Piccadilly Circus is like that for me. When I was a kid, it was synonymous with the excitement and bustle of London town – I specifically remember the giant sinewy bronze horses on the corner of Haymarket, rearing up as though spooked by the traffic. To me, they were ancient statues, indicative of a powerful city that had stood for hundreds of years (I was not to know they were only built in 1992).

Not to mention the lights – when you’re a kid, those enormous, flashing billboards embodied the glitz and glamour of the capital, like our very own (slightly shit) Times Square. They were something to be gawped at in awe, naïve of the inherent inanity of an animated corporate logo repeatedly scrolling through its carefully selected brand colours ad infinitum.

Largin’ it

Later, as a teenager, a few friends of mine and I would take the coach up to London for nights out. We had no idea what we were doing, which is probably why we would end up in the Wetherspoons on Leicester Square, asking the barman for a round of “Vulcan rebels” because we thought it was funny when they correctly misunderstood us and brought vodka-Red Bulls. Jokes!

We’d spend some time playing in the arcade in the Trocadero (back when it still had one), shooting bad guys in Time Crisis II or failing miserably to beat the clock in Sega Rally Championship (I never understood the co-pilot saying: “Easy right – maybe” –  is it, or isn’t it?).

One time we were there during a movie premiere. The crowds, the screaming! I high-fived Richard Blackwood. I remember recounting this achievement to friends back home, unable to make the story anything more than acutely underwhelming.

In those days, the West End was still exciting, but for me a little tinged with my own self-doubt. We’d go ostensibly for the nightlife, but arrive with no idea where to go, nor how to have fun when we got there. We’d end up, as the other youths and tourists do, in some neon-lit club, dancing awkwardly to R&B and pop songs. We used to buy bottles of wine because we couldn’t afford cocktails, and comprehensively failed to snog any girls (ah, the protagonist’s motivation is finally revealed).

I spent a huge amount of my youth drinking as much sugary booze as I could, because I wasn’t completely sure what I was supposed to be doing. But that was because we were going to shit places with shit music I hated, and I was utterly devoid of the confidence to approach girls. The West End became a bit of a symbol of disappointment for me, or of my disappointment in myself.

Norf of the river

Skip forward five or six years and I’m moving to north London. In the meantime, I’d graduated from University with an English Lit degree and a worrying reliance on alcohol, but I at least had an idea of who the fuck I was. Those early years in London were spent cultivating that alcoholism and drip-feeding a career in publishing, living on Fray Bentos pies and three-for-a-tenner bottles of wine. There were some excellent house parties. It was a good time.

We knew by then the West End was a tourist trap, full of over-priced bars and low-quality restaurants. The bright lights lost their sheen as I grew distrustful of advertising and “market penetration” and “brand awareness”. Suddenly the garish lights of Piccadilly Circus seemed an unfathomable waste of money.

But when I started working in Piccadilly, during my third year in the capital, suddenly it was cool again. I worked in central London. Imagine that! I got the tube to work, discovered affordable pints in Sam Smith’s pubs, and was introduced to the food stalls of Berwick and Rupert Streets. The first few days of payday I’d treat myself to a burrito. That’s MEXICAN food. Suddenly, nothing seemed beyond London’s capabilities.

Heading in the write direction

I also returned to writing after a hiatus that had spanned maybe six years, scribbling nothing but Vogonic poetry and terrible crime caper screenplays involving cool British kids who wanted to get stoned but just do this one big score, this one bank job. Cringe-worthy stuff that I thought was brilliant when I wrote it stoned at uni.

Instead, I had sewn the seed of a novel – it was started on a whim, on an A4 piece of paper on my commute. It burgeoned as I recalled how fun writing stories can be, letting them develop seemingly of their own volition and just enjoying the ride. Suddenly I was hunting pubs with quiet rooms in which to write on my lunch breaks. And Soho had dozens.

Inevitably, of course, I became a bit jaded by the tourists who got in my way, stopping abruptly to take a picture or examine a comically large map in the middle of the street. Even movie premieres became an unwelcome hindrance on my way to the tube – the sound of teenage girls screaming as though in horror at some unseen celebrity made my skin seep into the gutter, drifting down drains to seek silence in the cold embrace of the Thames.

It never dawned on me at the time that I used to be one of them – that spiky-haired teenager stumbling around outside the Moon Under Water, unsure of where he was going and still dazzled – intimidated even – by the bustle. Did they scream for Blackwood?

Now I’m in the City. And now, I miss the tourists. There are just as many people to get in your way around Bank station, but now they’re faster, more irritable and with a face as glum as Will Self if he’d sat on a whoopee cushion. It’s awful.

Yes, the tourists were slow and prone to erratic shifts in pace and direction, but at least they were having a nice time. At least they smiled.

When life imitates art

Station Eleven_webI’m reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel at the moment. In fact, I’m almost through (I expect my review will be next week’s post). And by Jove is it a thinker. It has shut me down into extended bouts of think-mode on several occasions… and that’s testament to its gripping style.

But it also had me over-thinking. It tells of a future ravaged by a plague that wipes 99.9% of the Earth’s population off the face of the planet. In between the accounts of the survivors, the narrative flits back to before the fall, and follows the lives of several characters, all of whom seem utterly regretful of the lives they’ve lived, despite the fabulous wealth of opportunity civilisation grants them. Here was an actor, who hated fame. Here a paparazzi and entertainment journalist, desperately seeking self-worth; and here a human-resources consultant, whose youthful free spirit is repressed by his corporate career.

Regret after regret after regret. And all in the face of a doom that no one knew would strike so swiftly or so suddenly.

Try reading that shit as you navigate the bowels of Bank station, with 2,000 other hopeless souls trapped behind the consequences of their choices and the priorities they traded.

Easy there fella, calm down

Bah, I’m not saying everyone who works in the City is a soulless automaton – I know many people who work there, sentient and contented, not to mention my brother, whose working proximity makes the prospect of this change all the easier to bear. I was just having a bad day adjusting to my new commute.

But the combination of Station Eleven‘s depressing narrative and these new surroundings compounded to reveal a vision of me, walking through the crowds, a scowl on my face because I hated all these unhappy people jostling and tutting and huffing and barging past me – and I realised, in that moment, I’d already become one of them. Less than a month and I was already a joyless City drone.

So, in an attempt to lift the mood – perhaps for me, perhaps for others – I smiled.

I know that sounds uncharacteristically twee and cutesy of me, and I’m not usually one to post pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo or glib inspirational quotes, like “Smile and the world smiles with you,” or whatever. But I have to admit, as I walked out onto the street, a look of dazed happiness smeared across my face, it did make me feel better.

They say the very act of smiling releases chemicals in the brain that pertain to the associated emotion, so maybe I was just giving myself an injection of much-needed endorphins. I don’t know if I cheered anyone else up though. Someone might have seen a happy maniac walking down Queen Street at around a quarter past nine – and now they take an alternative route to work.

Either way, I think I need to read something a little cheerier for these nascent months in our new office as I adjust. And in the meantime, I’ll miss Piccadilly Circus.

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