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Jeremy Paxman Is Wrong
John Parton


Conversing merrily as we lie on our respective couches, it occurs to us that neither of us has left the house today. It’s seven in the evening. Oh dear. (Actually that’s a lie, I’ve been to Waitrose for a new toothbrush.)

I’ve been reading Jeremy Paxman’s excellent The English (largely as it came free with the newspaper) for the past week, and have just reached a section on why English urban life is so shit; apparently we all secretly want to live in the countryside anyway and so we mock-Tudor maul our cities to compensate. Except that London isn’t crap at all, it’s great, no? Massive, pulsing and crowded with people and stuff to do? Erm.

Will Self also has a lot to answer for. Mulling over one of his fine PsychoGeographical columns in the Independent, I’m reminded that occasionally a good rambling day out is good for the Londoner’s soul. So that’s what we have here; a marathon day of shoelaces double knotted, Weetabix stuffed in the pocket, camera memory purged and ready to go. The strategy? To prove Paxman isn’t always right, to try not to plagiarise Self too much, to spend as little money as possible and to get me off the sofa. And also to come across as much stuff as I can in London in a day and actually form my experiences into entertaining words in order to re-heat this cold baked bean of a plan into something plausible. Please, read on.

Blake's Grave

So yeah, early starts are tough when (for once) you don’t have a weight-watcher in an office watching the clock and awaiting your po-faced entry. But they’re still worth it. Except when it’s raining like hell. Highlights of this morning of London roaming include the grapefruit I had for breakfast; a bad start. Why? I’m not sure. Do I have something against grapefruits? Maybe I’ll write a Radar addressing my unhappiness at this beginning someday. But by half-ten the clouds part and I toddle out, leaving Wapping on its own for the day. Past Rupert Murdoch’s Times HQ, over The Highway and things start to get a bit saltier already. Proper local holes open their kicked-in doors for a release of stale beer smog now sorely missing its smoky partner. Past the local wet-house and a small gang of miscreants gather in a snaggle-toothed huddle of mischief. One shouts ‘nice T-shirt’ at me after hawking up an enormous pigeon shit from somewhere within. Thanks.

Up to the Whitechapel Gallery. Tarred and feathered in hoardings as it prepares to swallow the library next door, it’s currently not a promising invite. A plastic sign outside does inform the casual rambler that the gallery was one of the first to put on a Picasso show though, didn’t know that. Onwards to Petticoat Lane via the foot of Brick Lane. The market is in half-swing and attempts to sell me a sari; I opt instead for a coffee from a semi-promising nearby café. They’re friendly enough but the black coffee definitely isn’t good enough to warrant a name-drop here. Avoiding the starch of the City is tough around these parts so things proceed north towards Sandy’s Row, which spouts me out straight at the glass and steel surrounding the ‘regenerated’ Spitalfields. Scuttling past the ‘last chance to eat at another Strada for the next 50 meters’ signs, I point my nose eastwards via the hodgepodge of Worship Street.

Two hours in and I’ve barely made any distance. Conclusion: fine wandering. Pit-stopping in the dank of Bunhill Fields I notice I’m sitting next to William Blake’s gravestone. Further investigations reveal that this is actually an enormous Dissenter’s burial ground, hosting the bones of 120,000 people from the olden days, including Blake’s, his wife’s, and those of Daniel Defoe. Nice!

Doughty Street

Exiting the Fields, and by now needing a wee quite badly, the bulk of one of the Barbican Centre’s towers glowers at us all. I decide to beeline for it, certain that a toilet must nestle somewhere within its darkened loins (just go with it). From this distance the place looks enormous, but as I’m wondering which way to approach this brutal frightener I already find myself ensconced within it. And lost. Yup, the Barbican is a place of infuriating complexity, a maze of concrete, tile and brick nodes and walkways. It’s also a little like being in A Clockwork Orange. The few people I pass seem to wonder what I’m doing here, I ask myself the same thing when I chance upon somewhere called ‘The Conservatory’, a random glass hot-house full of tropical plants and man-eating lizards. Feeling flushed I bolt up the nearest concrete ramp and am deposited in the surprisingly relaxing Barbican art gallery. Sneezing at the £8 entry fee to the current exhibition I can recommend instead taking full advantage of the (free) toilets.

On the way back to civilization you can’t help but ponder how many single-mums you’d see being mugged had the Barbican landed anywhere else in London other than smack-bang in the (almost crime-less) City. Which reminds me of another of Paxman’s points, that we (the English) just don’t do city apartment living. Well, we do, we just haven’t done too well at it yet.  

It’s now 2:15 and I’m running on vapours. From the Barbican to Fitzrovia the pace picked up and ended in a blur. The first signs became evident around Aldersgate, where square-eyed be-bloused office bicycles in their twos and threes shouted at each other’s cigarettes in the beginnings of the lunch time scramble. By Cloth Fair a couple of big-shots were stabbing each other as they both attempted dominance at Marks and Spencer. Now in full flow, the lunch rush of Long Lane washed me down and past Smithfields, through Farringdon and Hatton Garden, and didn’t stop pushing me around until I beached on Doughty Street. This morning’s grapefruit stopped giving around this point and I had to fumble for the emergency Weetabix. Brought back to life, I recollect stumbling across the post-lunch wasteland of Leather Lane market (Blackberries strewn across the road, starving office seniors being vultured) before ogling the Georgian money shots around Coram’s Field.

Sandy's Row

Past UCL and over the screaming Gower Street things come to a temporary conk-out at Matteo’s Sandwich Bar, on Tottenham Street. If this is your local sandwich joint, you’re a lucky person. Crunching on a late-lunch BLT (I was even asked if I wanted my B crispy) amongst the bickering staff, the day’s meanderings have been so far, so good. Such a walk IS good for the soul. Leaving with a Twix I try to snap Matteo’s for you all, to find that my camera has given up the ghost. If only restorative sandwiches could be fed to electronics too.

Verily skipping my way on, and with the BT Tower for company, brief homage is paid to the site of the new NOHO Square before further attentions are lavished on the bookshop in the Royal Institute of British Architects. Over Harley Street with its fleet of posh hospitals, hypochondriacs and fake tits, before another book buying session at the Oxfam bookshop on Marylebone High Street.

By Lisson Grove the wander has nearly finished its work. Worries have been worn to stumps, the brain has vented, the stupor of the couch singed away. The finishing line ends up being Church Street by way of the beautiful little Boston Place, where five miles in five hours rewards two barking dogs with a decent rest. The moral of this warbling time-waster of a story? Well, firstly, congratulations if you’re still reading this (no problem); secondly, I’m amazed that after 25 years of London air tainting my dainty lungs I can still find the city endlessly fascinating. All it took was a Weetabix, a BLT sarnie and to roll off the couch. Also, Paxman wasn’t entirely right. London is, of course, a complete fantasy world of entertainment and delights. But, then again, I think he was talking about places like Wolverhampton in his book, which really is crap.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Barbican Centre Whitechapel Gallery
Petticoat Lane Market

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