Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Far From the Madding Crowd

So, December is upon us. Time to start feeling festive. On Friday I intend to hit the dreaded Oxford Street to do the unavoidable high street shop before Christmas and I am praying it won’t be too bad, being a week day. We shall see. I also intend to go and see the Turner Prize which I make a point of seeing every year - not because I particularly like anyone who is ever nominated (lets face it, who does?) but because I use it as a barometer of what’s hot and what’s not in the arty world. Last week I saw the Photographic Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery - not because the photographs are particularly cutting edge (well, not this year anyway) but because it’s a perfect excuse to stand and stare at people and wonder what their story is without the risk of getting walloped. Which is always a risk in London - especially away from the polished tourist hubs and in the real world where most people (like me) live.
So, busy busy busy. It never really stops in London. It swells with tourists in the summer and throbs with shoppers in the winter. It is hard to find solace.
However last week I found it. Having finished work in London Bridge after a late afternoon meeting, I decided to take advantage of being south of the river and took a stroll along the Southbank before heading over to the Portrait Gallery. In the summer the Southbank is a hive of tourist activity. The overpriced pubs are overflowing, street vendors tempt passers by with wire nick-knacks, roasted nuts and second hand books and street performers try their best to be original in what is already a saturated market. The Tate Modern, National Theatre and a plethora of other landmarks attract crowds like bees to honey (okay, so that should be pollen, but honey sounds better doesn’t it?).
However, last Thursday at around 4.30, all was quiet. The pubs were still. The adolescent trees glistened with blue fairy lights against the darkening sky. A few pedestrians strode along enjoying the late afternoon light, occasional suits scooted along to clinch a last minute deal. But in general all was calm. The loudest noise was the Thames lapping. Yes, it was cold. And yes, it was getting dark. But, other than a glimpse of Big Ben and the Eye in the near distance, you could almost forget where you were.
Of course, it did not last forever. As I approached County Hall a small Christmas Market was set up selling mulled wine, hog roasts and Camden-stylee gifts. A couple of street performers came into view, living statues no-doubt frozen by the icy wind and a Chinese harp player adding to the almost eerie ambience.
The crowds thickened at the base of Westminster Bridge and dodging budding photographers compositions became a challenge. By the time I was on the other side of the river, my inner calm had been replaced once more by the gritting of teeth and clenching of fists as the all-too-familiar Tourist Rage kicked in. By the time I got to the gallery I was exhausted by the effort of negotiating the crowds without losing my rag. I decided on a cup of tea to warm my numb body and defrost my icy demeanour. I watched as the hoards walked past PrĂȘt, rushing to the next show, the next shop, the next landmark in their guidebook. I felt for the fraught amongst them, those who just wanted to get from A to B without having to play dodgems with the world and his uncle. But then I thought about the Southbank and smiled to myself, knowing that there is a little slice of London that I can escape to if the going gets tough this Friday. And it seems that most of London has forgotten all about it.

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