Friday, October 26, 2012

The Lighter Side of London

England exerts a hold over the imagination of many a youth as the mythical land of tea and scones, where children frolic in and out of enchanted woods, men in funny costumes march on stage sprouting unintelligible English, criminals run amok in lamp-lit streets ready to be nabbed by the most famous detective in the world, and polite gentlemen in coats and ties applaud crisp cover drives on the lush green fields of Lord’s.

With so many stimuli to pique one’s fancy, who with the capacity to recognise the English alphabet (and some with even less) can resist the thought of visiting the land of our ex-colonial masters?

I am no exception to this desire. A desire thwarted not too long ago by the British embassy’s childish refusal to recognise my brown memness (the female equivalent of the brown sahib in case you didn’t know) and refusing me a visa. This year, though, in due recognition of my services as guardian of English language and literature in an Allah-forsaken commonwealth state, the British Embassy, nudged along by the British Council, sent me back a duly stamped passport in time to avail my scholarship for a short course at the King’s College, London.

And thus I ended up there for six weeks this summer.

The British Summer
The first, most pressing and inescapable fact, about London is its weather, which is more unpredictable than Prince Harry. No wonder the British seem obsessed with it. Many outdoor events announce themselves with the caveat, “subject to weather.” My first three weeks there were marked by persistent rainfall, not the kind that in Lahore prompts children to splash in puddles and dance and sing in the streets, but a slow, constant presence that permanently weaves itself into the fabric of everyday life.

In London, necessity, not fashion dictates the carrying of a large bag at all times, with umbrella, sun cream, cardigan, sunglasses and other such seemingly disparate accoutrements to brave the notorious four-seasons-in-one-day weather of the city. I watched ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ production at Regent’s Park Theatre in cold conditions under an intermittently pouring sky, but the rain wasn’t considered heavy enough to cancel the show. The dauntless actors went on prancing and lying flat on the wet stage in their skimpy garments, spewing mouthfuls of Early Modern English without missing a beat. I came to realise that they brave the rain the same way we deal with long summers filled with loadshedding, after a while no matter what the conditions, you just have to get on with it.

One of the things you want to do most when you are in the land of The Beatles and the bard is to soak up the culture. West-End musicals cost an arm and a leg but not one to be daunted by difficulties, I decided to attend at least one for the experience. I bought my tickets online for 30 pounds, a steep amount for one who earns in Pak rupees, but managed to soothe myself with thoughts of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Well, it did turn out to be one.

Image taken off the net by some lucky people close to the stage
I found myself gasping for oxygen on the top tiers of a theatre as high as a football stadium with one pound worth of rental binoculars next to every seat. Along with the distance from the stage the dividing bar in front of me assured that I had to crane my neck to catch the little dots on the stage singing and dancing with what I am sure must have been great gusto. Thankfully, the acoustics of the hall did not discriminate against the poverty stricken. The toe tapping numbers of Franki Valli and The Four Seasons and the lively electronic backdrops made for an enjoyable experience overall.

Shakespeare's Globe before the start of a performance
I had slightly better luck at Shakespeare’s Globe where you can buy ‘groundling’ tickets for five pounds apiece at the added physical cost of standing for the whole length of the performance. But at least it means that you are right in the middle of the action. Due to no fault of the impeccable Richard III production, I felt I needed to rest my tired feet after the first hour of non-stop standing. I hadn’t even managed to make myself fully comfortable before an elderly woman, who bore too strong a resemblance to my convent school teacher, came rushing out of the stands to haul me back to my feet.

Apparently modern groundlings aren’t allowed to rest their legs in pursuit of Shakespearean entertainment. Rather unfair when you compare it with the privileges their 16th century counterparts enjoyed who were at liberty to hurl shoes and tomatoes at the stage if the bard failed to live up to their expectations.

When one thinks of London, its architectural wonders always figure alongside, and celebrated marvels like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben and The Tower Bridge are worth every bit of their global hype. Only problem is you have to squint very very hard to blur the ugly backdrop of utilitarian tower blocks from the 1960s and 1970s against which these architectural icons stand today. Atop these unsightly office blocks reside cranes permanently frozen at grizzly angles, suggesting that post World War II Britain’s aesthetics also plummeted with its fortunes.

This hodgepodge of architecture makes for an incongruous city with flourishes of ornate beauty amid clusters of Soviet-style functionality. The 21st century architectural contributions include the phallic Gherkin and the all glass and steel Shard, built with Qatari money. If your premier cultural city looks to the Middle East for aesthetic inspiration, you don’t really need the stock market to indicate your downfall.

London’s architectural incongruity is symbolic of the city which is, by no means, some quaint bastion of Englishness today. It is a huge metropolis where people of all types exist alongside in a cacophony of cultures, languages, races, orientations and religions.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on the London underground, London’s complicated and sprawling subway system, where you often run into mixed race, mixed orientation couples from a range of ethnicities; or occasionally catch Asian women wearing garish saris, or shalwar kameez full of bling, probably off to some formal function or wedding, with not a person in their vicinity batting an eyelid. I remember being particularly in thrall on the tube one day when I came across a woman in a hijab bent over her little Quran, muttering its verses fairly audibly under her breath as the one on her right nonchalantly flipped through her copy of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

All fantasies that are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to collide with reality are bound to adjust and change shape, and so my experience of the living, breathing London both diminished and enriched the land of my romantic imagination. Dr. Johnson said about London, “Tired of London, tired of life.” I am glad to report that my six weeks there proved that for all their rough patches, I am tired of neither.


A version of this piece was published in The News on Sunday on 9th September 2012

1 comment:

  1. after reading this and the previous post i have a perception that you utilized those 6 weeks very well and there are many points where I feel the same about the city tough i never stayed for such longer period of time but the two days visit to the city every week gives me a lot of glimpse of it.
    and i have to say one can not be tired of this city where you can find diversity in almost every street corner.