Tag Archives: cycling

Snapshot London

Sometimes, at my favourite spot in town, I suddenly become very aware of the exhilerating and passing reality of London as we know it. Cycling across Waterloo bridge, I move my head left and right and back again to take in the panoramic view of London in action, and I wonder how long this spectacular town will keep it up. And how perhaps some time in the future, it may have reverted to its stiller state of a domestic capital, rather than the international hub it is now. So I’d like to paint a snapshot of the buzz, the chaos and the international social fabric of this town that is always transitioning, happening and creating as it attracts scores of people from across the globe without the Brits seeming to mind, too much. Needless to say, I’m in love with this town.

Perhaps the reluctant flight of bankers will trigger a wider migrant exodus, although it is difficult to imagine that the city could ever return to its quieter days when terraces, coffee places and foreign food in general were yet a thing of the future. Picture yourself standing like me on the middle of Waterloo bridge, facing the North. To the left, you see the gothic glimmer of Westminster Palace in amber, the spider building of a not to be mentioned professional services firm towering over Charing Cross Station and its bridges and an imposing grey mass of Embankment business headquarters behind lines of trees. Then you turn to face the right, where the City stretches out over a square mile covered by countless cranes and church spires. Look closer and you’ll see the three rank Barbican towers, while you cannot miss St Paul’s dome. Beyond, Canary Wharf towers straight, at the far end of the bendy river.  To the south there is the buzz of the Southbank’s concrete cultural houses, while the river is busy itself as party and passenger boats work their way west and east. How different from Iris Murdoch’s accounts of London of the 1960s, full of decent civil servants, deserted summer streets and everybody bumping into one another on Regent’s street.

Walking to work across Millennium bridge towards St Paul’s cathedral, I often sense the jagged cityscape binds fellow work wanderers, a silent productive procession, everyone relishing the quiet moments before the office storm is unleashed. Girls always take two pairs of shoes: sneakers to walk a mile, and high heels sticking out of the handbag. Even the town’s architecture is industrious. Many buildings date from London’s last big construction wave in Victorian times. The Tate Modern is an old power station. Battersea power station towers over the South West bank. Every inch of town is being used, and re-used, re-built, constant scaffolding, cool neighbourhoods constantly shifting.

Migrants of all types converge or transition through town: from my Brazilian cleaning lady with Italian accent, to the Eastern European cafe girls, the Dutch/Somalian local government worker, the Spanish bike mechanic, the wealthy veiled women of Edgware Road and my Finnish, Filipino, Korean, American, Australian, Bulgarian, German, Swiss, Zimbabwean, Italian colleagues at work. All have a story of living life in a foreign country, while being away from familiar home. Most stick to their national culture in some way or another, yet many feel the transformative pull of the big city: come to me and be who you want to be. It can be exhilarating to reinvent yourself in the midst of the crowd – you can make it on your own terms, and be a Londoner too.

London by bike

Cycling in London is entering the mainstream, after years of subculture existence. When I started cycling here five years ago, the ‘push bike’ (to distinguish it from the ‘motor bike’) was the domain of sport fanatics in lycra and anarchist bicycle couriers. Now, the Boris bike, London’s new cycling scheme introduced this summer by Mayor Boris Johnson, has already pushed  12,000 Londoners to sign up for a ride across town on one of the 5,000 bikes. The very solid bikes, preferably driven on a Barclays-blue ‘cycle superhighway’, have finally given cyclists a somewhat more equal status to pedestrians and assorted motorists.

Just a word of warning though if you’re considering signing up as an unknowing tourist or other first-time cyclist: it’s still a war out there. You are right, the bike is a great way to escape the underground rush hour panic. Your personal space will not be shared with numbed tube-riders staring vacuously ahead. Instead, every motorist on the street is out to get you. Most regular motorists are completely unaware of bicycles appearing on their rear mirror. Those who spend their lives on the road, on the other hand, cherish a profound hatred of cyclists ‘taking over’ the road. Only last week, a cab driver lost it because I wanted to turn right on a busy road: ‘You c*#*, are you drunk or what?!’

So my strategy is to always be assertively visible and get as far away from motorised traffic as possible. The backstreets of London are prettier anyway, and traffic lights are best jumped. This is not without danger either, though. Once I was gently pedalling along, skipping a red light at a pedestrian crossing without pedestrians. All of a sudden a police car with four fully armed officers pulls up. A very big guy with a machine gun and two pistols steps out and towers over me. Did I want him to have to ring my mum to tell her I’m dead? Did a red light mean the same thing in the country I was from? Did I wish to be run over by a concrete-carrying truck? He was clearly letting off steam after having just foiled a terrorist attack. I decided it was best not to explain that in my country we prefer to keep bus and cycle lanes separate.

With mainstream cycling coming up, my war tales may soon be out-of-date. New challenges, such as navigating the chaotic cycle traffic at Hyde Park corner, will come up. I just can’t work out why people don’t just keep on the left off the street as well as on the street. In any case, I still think a bike is the best way to explore, admire and get to know this city. Just remember to put your helmet on. And to call mobile mechanics Cycledelik when you’ve got a puncture somewhere about town.