The city as an elephant

A man sculpting faces in the sand by the Thames

Beach-front London

I caught the wrong bus this morning. Head in the clouds, thinking about who knows what, I didn’t notice until we sailed past Newington Green in the wrong direction. Since I wasn’t in a hurry and it was still a nice day, I decided to stick with my error and take a walk along the Thames from Waterloo – where I was headed – to London Bridge – where I wanted to be.

There was a quiet bemusement to the others down on the South Bank, dressed again in their summer clothes, more in hope than expectation following a very British heatwave – a couple of days of sunshine sliding into sticky closeness before the inevitable rain. A couple sat cross-legged on the giant green sofa outside the National Theatre. Others leant on the railings looking at the river, while the more purposeful walked distractedly to wherever it was they were heading. The tide was out, and one or two people were doing their thing on the Thames’ tiny beaches. No bustle and very little noise in the still air. I sauntered, enjoying once again the realisation that London’s riverside was no longer threatening, no longer reeked of urine.

Then the construction work at Tate Modern diverted me inland. Turning onto Southwark Street I was struck by the immensity of London, its formal chaos, its familiar strangeness. I’ve lived here for a while now, but no matter how well I come to know it, its details and its whole, the city still has the capacity to startle me on turning a corner. Like an elephant.

Bear with me – I realise I am preoccupied with elephants at the moment – but the old adage about blind men describing an elephant struck me as particularly apt in relation to London today. The randomness of the buildings and streets doesn’t make sense within the context of the city’s silhouette. And then there are the surprises, like a startling tongue that pushes from the front to back of a raggedly triangular mouth, or a courtyard of mid-eighteenth century almshouses nestling under the hulk of a big blue building from the mid-Noughties.

But there is something else. Like an elephant, London is a vast and threatening thing, capable of crushing a mere human without a thought, carelessly. When either turns their mind to it, both can wreak havoc. It is only by maintaining a faith in their essentially benign nature that living in their shadow remains possible. Keep out from under their feet and their intelligence and erratic beauty are wonders to behold, like the squat grey bulk of Guys Hospital suddenly fragile beneath the emergent elegance of the Shard. Like an elephant, the sum of the parts shouldn’t work but they most emphatically do.

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