Cracker by Damian Christie

Dirty Ol' Town

The thing about writing anything about London, is it’s all been written before. Usually by people a lot smarter and more astute than me. Or should that be I? (Better sort that one out before me head to Oxford on Thursday.)

But anyway, a few brief observations about the trip thus far.

Long haul flying sucks. If the Catholics are right (just say), and there is such a thing as purgatory, I bet it resembles a transit lounge at 1am. There’s only so much fun you can have riding the travelators and window shopping outside closed duty free stores.

The only thing worse than a transit lounge (which by definition must then be Hell) is having to sit on the plane at Heathrow for an hour – seatbelts fastened, no toilet or overhead locker action – because they can’t find anywhere for the plane to park. Thirty hours in the air, the least they could do is put one of those little orange cones to reserve a space for you. In the end they realised they could just put some steps up to the plane and we could get off that way. Genius.

I’m beginning to think we, i.e the human race, might have our priorities wrong. Why can I fit 10,000 songs I don’t even like that much onto my ipod, but it still takes more than an entire day to get to the other side of the world? I’m thinking 12 hours is about right – an hour per time zone. It makes good, intuitive sense.

If you thought “would you like to biggie size your meal for only 50 cents” was annoying, try having your inflight movie interrupted every ten minutes because the head flight attendant thinks it’s really important you understand the benefits of buying your duty free on the plane direct from Qantas, as opposed to those nasty airport stores. “There’s never been a better time to buy”. Seriously? How bout fetching me another beer instead of flogging souvenirs eh buddy?

If you’re in economy, don’t bother buzzing for a flight attendant. They’re trained to assume it’s a malfunction and will continue hawking their wares.

Curiouser and curiouser: On the flight from Auckland to Sydney, I was told I’d been ordered a special Halal meal. “It must be on your profile” they said, as they handed me a chicken curry – sure enough, my name and seat was written on the top. I tried to remember whether I’d ticked the box for a laugh, which is the sort of thing I’d do. A joke for one. Then it hit me – they probably only have one style of Halal meal on the menu. Breakfast lunch and dinner was going to be chicken curry. But, as mysteriously as it appeared, my status reverted, and the next meal I ate was pork wrapped in bacon, with a side of gin.

It is an immutable law of long distance travel that you will spill something from every meal on your clothing. So when you arrive, not only will you have whatever the opposite of the Lynx effect is, your shirt will also be a dappled canvas of soy sauce, chocolate and chicken gravy. This will help create the impression you are in fact homeless, and will not make passing Passport Control any easier.

On the flipside, other than immigration, the English clearly don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone is bringing into their country. At Customs I selected the Green “nothing to declare” aisle, turned a corner and found myself standing in the main airport lobby. It’s like an honesty box for drug trafficking.

London itself is a paradox; frighteningly efficient, yet struggling under its own weight and ennui. The Heathrow Express from the airport to Paddington couldn’t be simpler. The tube strike that morning meant a half-hour, 200 metre queue for a cab. I notice oddly impractical things – there are no rubbish bins anywhere near the tube stations, which is fine if you’re trying to thwart people planting bombs, but rubbish if you’ve got to carry an empty drink can from one side of the city to the other because there’s nowhere to discard of it. Public toilets, same deal. I haven’t seen one anywhere, not at the train stations, not on the street or in the parks. I’ve already learnt which chain stores and fast food restaurants are (obliviously) happy to take my bodily waste. Cheers, Borders.

From the time you arrive at Heathrow, to every day riding the tube, you are guided by automated voices. Mind the gap. This train will terminate at West Leceistershiresteadwick. Change here for Bakerloo and Circle. The white lines are for loading, unloading and snorting. Stand Right. The overall impression (at least until you tune out, I’m hoping on Day 3) is Orwellian. They know you’re there. They’re telling you how to stand, when to move and how to step doing it. Of course, it’s All For Your Own Good…

Interesting thing I have learnt #1: “Changing at Baker St” is a euphemism for gay bum sex. As anyone with an intimate knowledge of the London underground will tell you, it's the only stop where you can swap from the pink Hammersmith & City line to the brown of Bakerloo.

It’s not as cold here as I was led to believe. Sure, it’s no picnic in Havana, but it’s nowhere near as cold as Queenstown on a winter’s night. And it doesn’t even rain, well not properly. As my mate Graeme put it, striding through Notting Hill last night, it never rains, but the streets are always wet. The buildings are always brown, and the streets are always wet.

The darkness is going to take a bit of getting used to. (Judging by the dour avoid-all-eye-contact expressions on everyone trudging around, no-one really has.) While the days are starting to get longer, sunset at 4pm isn’t anything to boast about. And as there’s little evidence of sun in the first place, the sky being uniformly grey during the seven hours of daylight, you’d hardly call it sunset. So it’s dark at four, but the city is still humming, the shops are open and everyone’s going about their business. It’s like late night Friday night at the mall, every day of the week.

I'll take my camera out today. Pictures soon.

Wish you were here.