Belfast Telegraph

Why in busy London you're just a face in the ever-growing one at that

By Mary Kenny

It might be a fun idea to be in London for a pre-Christmas shopping trip - what with the pound sterling almost heading for parity with the euro and all that ... If you're at the top of your form and in the whole of your health, maybe. Otherwise, take your ease. London has become a scrum. You can't move. Every hour of the day is rush hour on the Underground. The Piccadilly line requires one of those Japanese railway officials who squeeze passengers into overcrowded trains, sardine-style.

Everywhere is thronged. You can't get into theatres - even when a seat costs £107 for a medium view of the stage, it's already booked out. A West End play is often full the moment it opens. They're booking for February right now and you'll still be hard put to get a ticket. If a celebrity actor is appearing in the show, forget it.

It's wonderful the theatre is thriving - commentators once predicted that the live theatre had no future - but the queuing for tickets, either online, on telephone, or in person, would vex a saint.

Art galleries are similar. There's an exciting exhibition currently at the Royal Academy on Abstract Expressionism. The Jackson Pollocks have always invited the response that a five-year-old could scribble on a canvas as effectively, but there is something astonishing about them - and JP's early death from drink is in the composition there somewhere. If only you could look at the pictures without 42 other people blocking your view. Culture is great, but does going to a gallery now have to resemble being in football crowd? In London, yes, it does.

Truth is, the population of London is higher than it has ever been in its entire history. It currently stands at 8.6 million, and is growing at double the rate of the population of the UK as a whole. It will reach 10 million within the next decade.

These are not just cold statistics, you really experience that feeling of always being in a huge crowd almost everywhere in London now. Since seeing Mr Selfridge on television, I'm told that many visitors now want to experience the store in Oxford Street. I think I'd rather sign up for active service with the Kurdish Liberation Front than have to battle my way into a pre-Christmas Selfridges.

The London crowds are not unpleasant. Courtesies prevail even on the squashed Piccadilly line. Young people, and particularly young people from Asian backgrounds, often offer me a seat. When I'm carrying a suitcase - being a trainee bag lady - young men and women frequently stop to carry it up steps for me. Crowds seem to know, instinctively, that manners and consideration are even more important among great masses of people.

There's nothing wrong with the crowds, except their sheer numbers. There's always a queue. For everything.

I lived in London for many decades - I can hardly believe that we once lived a Bohemian life of artistic disorder in Holland Park - but then my late husband persuaded me to move residence to a small seaside town in Kent that is nearer Calais than London. I thought it a mighty sacrifice to be parted from the bright lights of the metropolis - but now I relish the peace, the quiet lapping waves that remind me of Sandymount, and the shining afternoon glimmer of the white cliffs of Cap Gris Nez, just across the bay, as a respite from the London multitudes.

When Richard departed this world, it was suggested I might resume residence in London (which also benefits from being handier for Dublin), but there is an economic law which orders that once you leave London, you can never afford to return. A property that might have sold for £500,000 when you left it, will now cost several - perhaps many - millions. I blame the rich Russian and Chinese oligarchs who have moved into London, bought up property and everywhere in the capital increased prices by the process of knock-on effect.

But despite the prices, and the pressure on housing, the population just keeps on growing, and will continue to do so. The infrastructures are, for the most part, terrific. Buses zip along merrily one after another - Boris Johnson, as Mayor of London, brought a public transport revolution - and if the tubes are packed, there are more overground rail systems being constructed all the time. There's a fabulous network in east London now called the Docklands Light Railway, which has turned Eliza Doolittle's Hoxton into Boulevard Chic.

The food is fabulous - from local markets to multi-starred restaurants - and the cultural amenities prolific. If you can cope with the crowds.

I sometimes wonder if those Irish Kings of the Kilburn High Road would recognise their old haunts now? I take a bus up the Kilburn High Road sometimes and I'm directed where to alight by two courteous Muslim men: "Just by the halal shop on the right." Kilburn, once the epicentre of Irish London, is now a multi-cultural souk; Afghan, Turkish, Polish delicatessens and food shops abound - probably an improvement, truth to tell, on the Irish pubs of yore, where, too often, poor Paddy was induced to drink his Friday night's wages.

Quex Road Catholic church, once packed with Irish families, now has a predominantly Filipino congregation. "Tis all changed," remarked an older Irishwoman dolefully, with a Brexiteer inflexion.

Yes, we grow old and things change - sometimes for the better. But something is lost, just the same - a pace of life that allowed us time, leisure and space.

Belfast Telegraph


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