London. One of the most beautiful cities in the world. I dream of a Victorian semi-detached house somewhere like Hampstead or Kingston, where I can power-walk to work, Starbucks in hand, stopping off to buy a vegetable-based energy vitamin concoction for lunch, bumping into my BFFs Fearne Cotton and Graham Norton on the way. I’m from humble Dorset (cider, tractors, all that stuff), a world away from the buzz of the capital, but I recently got the opportunity to sample such an experience after a three-week placement at a publishing company. Much of this was as I’d hoped it would be – stressful commutes, always something to do, spending far too much money on food. However, life as a Londoner did come with a few surprises…
Unfortunately, however much I try to fit in and be cool, crossing empty roads even if the light hasn’t changed, being able to answer tourist questions about the quickest way to whichever landmark, I can confirm that I am definitely not yet a Londoner, as my hysterical fangirling when walking down Baker Street exemplified. I might as well be wearing wellies and a flat cap, it’s so obvious, as I Google-Maps where I am standing, only to discover I’ve literally wondered into Hyde Park without realising.
Taking selfies in front of monuments is a bit of an alarm bell for people too. As you stand there, phone in hand, arm outstretched, looking like the naïve hillbilly you probably are, you’re essentially wearing a t-shirt that says “I’ve never seen Buckingham Palace before and for some reason thought my iPhone photo of it would be better than the professional one on the souvenir mug I just bought. Give me dirty looks and avoid me”.
I also smile at people. A lot. I began to come to terms with how socially unacceptable this seems to be on moving to Southampton, where a fair few strangers don’t like to smile back or respond when you walk past them. This obviously very horrific behaviour has left me on occasion feeling metaphorically slapped around the face at the blatant lack of friendliness.
Because you see, the Londoner, as a stereotype, is not always the most friendly of people. Don’t get me wrong, polite born-and-bred Londoners do exist, those who are willing to help lost travellers, or offer recommendations for their favourite spots in London. They are out there if you can distinguish them from the eyes-down, blank-faced, fast-walking grumps. Once, in a bid of madness after my phone ran out of battery, I dared to ask a woman at a road crossing what the time was. She gave me what I considered a look of pure horror, as if I had just asked her to tear her own skin from her face. I will not make that mistake again in a hurry.
As you can see, I’m not being stereotypical at all – I am nothing if not thorough (and a little insulting – if you have been offended by anything which has or will in future appear in this guide, please bear in mind that my insults are more directed at myself than anyone else, due to my clear social ineptitude and metropolitan naivety)
As I say, not all Londoners hold such callous in differences towards outsiders. Plenty are lovely, more than willing to give you a hand with your bags on the stairs, or to let you go in front of them in a queue; indeed many have welcomed me into their midst and allowed me to actually feel like one of them, working, traveling, eating and shopping alongside them. However, I believe it is their environment which brings out the occasionally ferocious side of these individuals, and they call this the commute.
Let’s be honest, I don’t help myself in my quest to be welcomed into their collective bosom. For example, as I have learned from experience, you don’t need to actually say thank you to the tube. This is already earning me questioning looks from other passengers on the buses in Southampton as I bellow a farewell to the expressionless driver. So stepping off the stuffy District Line at 8.30 on a Monday morning and hollering a cheery thank you down the carriage is not exactly a sure-fire way to make friends in the capital.
Thus it is probably my hillbilly nature that incites such passive-aggressive intensity in some of the more temperamental commuters. A classic example of this is the notorious battle of Who Gets To Sit Down On The Tube.
It is a very precise formula, somewhere between finders-keepers and musical chairs. There are of course obvious exceptions – it is universally understood that a seat should be given up for the pregnant, the elderly and those less able to stand. There is however one such assumption which I naively underestimated. In my ignorance, perhaps a result of being of the Disney era, I believed a dashing gentleman would be inclined to stand back for the sweaty, tired and book-laden damsel in distress, who elegantly launched herself onto the tube just before the doors shut, to have the chair near him which has just been vacated. In not all, but many cases, no such luck. Eyes down, newspaper in hand, many sharply-dressed businessmen are more than happy to claim the seat for themselves.
This is but one problem with a newly vacated seat. On a very hot, very sweaty tube in the middle of summer, the general consensus is that it is acceptable to take the nearest seat to you once it’s empty, unless you are offering it to someone else. In the event that the only seat now available is quite far from the standing area, a Hunger Games-style battle of silent aggression ensues, in which no individual has the guts to assume said seat, thus resulting in a journey laced with icy stares and looks of longing. On one occasion, I took the ballsy move. Putting one cautionary foot forwards after a minute of waiting to see if anyone else would dare, I went over and slumped into the seat, feeling quietly satisfied, but then endeavouring to ignore the looks of loathing I left in my wake.
One of my biggest hopes during my stint in the capital, as a television, film and radio obsessive who spends an inordinate amount of time on social media, was this: see a famous person. It’s not a big deal to some people, but to me, I somehow always seem to miss celebrities. I don’t have particularly high standards of celebrity, but I have never been one of those people who just accidentally walks into Phillip Schofield in Sainsbury’s, stands on Michael McIntyre’s foot by accident in a queue, or sits next to Steph and Dom from Gogglebox on the tube (Although I did see Ray Quinn buying vegetables in a Tesco Metro once.). I therefore hoped, nay expected, that living in Richmond, a borough supposedly bursting with slebs (I’m told actual Bradgelina have a house there) to see at least someone, but no such luck. Thus the celebrities of London, these elusive creatures who seem to travel in the dead of night, when none but cab drivers would ever see them, must have all migrated for the summer. Or else they’re all just avoiding me, which is a bit rude.
Another creature with which most Londoners are far more accustomed is also one of my sworn enemies. The Pigeon.
To most, this might seem a strange observation, but these feathery balls of malice have caused many an embarrassing public humiliation for yours truly. I’m already nervous enough about being in one of the biggest cities in the world without the impending threat of attack from these airborne horrors.
I’m not a fan of birds in general to be honest. Fine at a distance, pretty even, on occasion. But put one anywhere near me and I will quite probably scream in terror any time it so much as flaps its wings in my direction – as a matter of fact that’s actually the worst, wing flapping, like they want to assure me that they have the upper hand… or wing. And pigeons are the worst for this, as they seem to have sussed out humans as no threat, becoming more bold and even cocky as they strut up and down the streets, blissfully ignorant to the innocent bystander who just wants to stand up from her chair without disturbing them and thus unleashing The Swarm.
And so you can see that I, a headstrong, confident young person (or so I thought), am reduced to a quivering, self-humiliating mess the moment I enter one of the most famous cities in the world. Nonetheless, London is one of my favourite places – maybe it’s because I’m (not, definitely not) a Londoner that I love London so.