October 11, 2008

Smoke Signals in the City

Regent Street pavement was clogged with the usual onslaught of weekend tourists and late night shoppers. I was walking quickly back from Borders toward the tube, head down, weaving between couples and groups and bags and beggars.

Then I overheard a woman say, “This city is unreal, it’s beautiful…” and she trailed off there. I stopped. The gaping grimy entrance to the tube was just ahead. I could be home in half an hour. Or, I thought, I could stop rushing about as if I had somewhere important to be and notice how beautiful it actually is. I chose the latter.

A few minutes later, I felt like a different person. I was awake and aware, a freshly-poured tall Tazo tea in one hand, a bag with a brand new camera from John Lewis and a one from Borders swinging in the other. I bought a book on travel writing, Wanderlust and Real Travel magazines and a mini French-English dictionary for my trip to Paris in two weeks. And I walked, head up, smiling, down Regent Street toward Piccadilly Circus. In a few months, this street will be draped in glittering displays of Christmas lights, shop windows wrapped in bows and holiday music the soundtrack to every shopping trip. But not yet. I love this time of year. It’s fresh, a gentle transition from summer to winter, inspiring.

Despite The London Paper and The Evening Standard’s front page news of Black Friday and the FTSE crashing to a 6-year low, the shops were throbbing, bags dangling from arms dressed in new winter coats. I walked past the windows of Burberry piled high with dry, crunchy tan Autumn leaves and the regal old buildings snaking around the end to the lights and crowds of Piccadilly Circus.

Following a familiar sound, I stopped in Zavvi to browse and bask in the Bob Dylan tunes floating from the doorway into the ears of people from around the globe. Around me, the melodies of different languages mixed and mingled with laughter, eager chatter and Sixties folk rock.

As I passed by Canada House toward Trafalgar Square, a continuous cloud of smoke that looked like the mist of Niagara Falls wafted through the spotlights of the National Gallery – an unusual and eerie effect. As usual in this city, I had happened upon something amusing.

I had come here to write. It was quite an ordeal trying to find a notebook after all the shops shut. Desperate, but not desperate enough to steal a stack of McDonald’s napkins to write on, I found myself, embarrassingly enough, standing in a tourist shop holding a few £s and a notebook covered in cliché images of London monuments. Of course, it took about 10 minutes to check out behind a family of four with a basket piled high with “My friend went to London and all I got….” teeshirts, shot glasses, Arsenal beer mats, wall plaques and some dreadfully tacky-looking tea pots. But hey, at least I got some paper.

Trafalgar Square is closer than South Bank, my first choice of somewhere to kill an hour writing, but it is just as well. It’s a magical place to sit comfortably as an anonymous stranger amongst equally anonymous tourists. Despite all the people, a muted peace spreads over this square because the flow and splash of fountains on either side of Nelson’s Column blankets the rush of people and traffic. The rest becomes background noise.

So, here I am. And here’s this amusing event I didn’t know about. It’s called The Memory Cloud and it involves a large, continuously spewing smoke machine and a projector. I read the board explaining it was the work of brothers Stephen and Theodore Spyropolous. Anyone can send a text that will be projected in large blue serif type onto these giant plumes of smoke, a dissipating message board, modern smoke signals. Words like “Sex” “Love” “Hope” and “Peace” popped up to the delight of a crowd that has gathered on the steps, yelling out when their text is displayed.

Above me, the sky is black as black, an empty blackboard with a chalk moon, the stars erased by light pollution. Straight ahead, Big Ben chimes, showing 9pm on a glowing face and the London Eye spins, barely noticeably, a purple dotted circle in the sky. Scruffy boys in sagging jeans saunter by with high-healed, high-pony-tailed, caked-in-make-up girlfriends. And I think about how not a soul in this world knows exactly where I am at this second. If a girl sits, unrecognised, a stranger on a bench, somewhere, anywhere in a mystery location, does she still exist?

Boys walk by now in tight jeans and striped colourful scarves toting Louis Vuitton purchases. Two 16-year-olds just sat on the bench next to me, one pushing the other closer saying, “Go on; don’t be chicken shit.” They leave seconds later, giggling, running in circles, and are replaced by two German tourists.

The German tourists kiss passionately on my bench and I really wonder if I do exist in this moment. This city is like that. People kissing on benches in chilly October air, on clear nights, whispering German passion between breaths while smoke signals announce text message love to the world in front of them. Love. And nobody looks twice. They could make love here on this bench and barely a Londoner, if any were about, would bat an eye because it’s not their business.

I love this city at night. I love it in the cold October air and the way it lightly kisses my cheeks. I love the red busses moving through the streets, moving people who are breathing warm air and reading newspapers oblivious to me sitting on this bench, breathing cold air, writing about them. I love the excitement of screaming sirens and the roar of motorcycles flying around curves. I love that I can sit here alone and not think about anything unpleasant, not worry about the people around me or how I’ll get home or what time I need to be somewhere now. Because I don’t need to be anywhere but here.

The lions perched majestically around the column remind me of my childhood trips when my brother and I would climb on their backs and sit between their giant paws. Those were the days they sold food for the pigeons for £1, the days the pigeons made Trafalgar Square what it was.

A girl walked by just now carrying a bag. Onto it was pinned a cloth that read, “Everything is Beautiful.” Everything is beautiful, indeed. I could sit here forever and watch people, soak in the smellssightssounds of this giant living, breathing, moving organism of a city. But I have finished my tea, I am hungry and have a new camera to explore. I think I will go home. Home. It’s nice to have a house, to be able to be home, in London. These are the days I fall in love with it again, the days I let this city take me wherever it wants me to be.
So, I shall follow the wind and the smoke as it drifts upwards and filters out the light of the glowing moon. I’ll follow it for a minute until I disappear underground and let the tube carry me through the deep veins of the city. Carry me home.

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