On Thursday I start a creative writing course called Writing the City. It has – or seems to have, at least – a wide open brief, allowing for the writing of prose, poetry and non-fiction, all inspired by the city.
A few days ago, I woke up with an idea quite fully formed. I am acutely aware of my own sentiments, prejudgements and performances of self as I move around London. I call it home, but with an insistence that characterises only those who actually don’t belong. I like the way I feel as a Londoner. In a way, I feel I thrive in the anonymity of a big city. I know many others who feel the opposite. My own brother dislikes London for the reasons why I like it.
For me, I find the ideas of familiarity and strangerdom so cloudy and elusive here, but I find this quite alluring. I like that I have a jovial friendship of the eyes with the lady at Coffee Republic, but when we attempt to speak, it is cripplingly uneasy due to our language gap and our awkwardness. I like the way strangers evolve a closeness on public transport through mutual distaste for a fellow passenger. I like to strut through shopping centres, knowing everyone is too busy to be bothered with each other, whether or not they are self-absorbed.
In much this vein, I have been thinking about London. It scares me for the same reasons it allures me. The same strangers whose presence within a group allows me to frolic in the norms of the crowd can still inspire fear in me when the group numbers dwindle. I glance down alleyways and see traces of a different world.
My idea is this.
I want to push the boundaries of this sense of strangeness, and I want to harness the creative potential of the feeling of displacement and awkwardness. I will select TfL stations at random, go there and explore from there, with a stranger who agrees to come along after a bit of talk on some or other dating app. Upon arriving on this strange unknown rendezvous, this unknown person and I will explore this unknown place, whilst learning about each other, and I will also – in the course of the little ‘detour’ – need to chat to three other strangers about their lives. I will need to listen.
Through doing this, I want to learn the life stories of other Londoners from a wide range of different experiences. I want to connect with my neighbours in a tangible way. I want to pluck up the confidence to fully embrace the possibility of being a true flaneur; drifting listless into and out of places, and inviting myself into different social spheres.
Hear the pretentious hipster bulllshit here. It is played on thick. I was talking about this idea with two of my friends in the pub earlier, as we sat in a gentrified bar filled with salvaged mismatched furniture, quizzing in an attempt to win a lump of ginger.
I believe that my little essays coming from this could be interesting, and worth doing, but it still feels false and hollow. So contrite.
I said goodbye to my friends this evening and got the bus back to Stratford. It was blisteringly cold. I walked past the Stratford Centre and rounded the corner. I had no music in, so just had the sounds around me for company. Some guy was walking towards me on the pavement. I pumped up my chest, but he stopped in front of me, and slowed his movements. He looked past me to the source of a new sound.
In the middle of the busy road, someone was squatting small amidst the speeding cars. She was wailing a primeval scream. A proper lament that makes you feel a clench in your throat. This small figure, bundled in rags, made no effort to move and just sobbed.
The guy and I both looked at each other. Before we crossed, he said she was drunk. Perhaps he had seen something I hadn’t in the movements? We got round to her and stopped the traffic. The bus drove around us in the road as we tried to help her up and brusquely but gently push them onto the pavement.
It was an old lady. It may be very difficult to age her, and she looked to have had not an easy life, but probably in her 60s. She wept and wept and sobbed in a language that the guy and I couldn’t understand. It sounded vaguely familiar as Eastern European, but not so familiar as to be Polish or Lithuanian, which I would recognise.
I cannot picture many people being more vulnerable than this lost drunk homeless old lady in a country where she seems not to understand anybody. She begged for money, and sobbed and stood up. The guy went away, saying she was drunk. She had many drunk-looking behaviours, but not most; she didn’t have any with her, didn’t slur and didn’t smell of drink. A thin scarf hanged limply from her shoulders and a little wooly hat was on her head.
I spoke to her, or tried to for a few minutes, trying to understand what she was saying. The guards had moved her on; I got the feeling she felt picked on by them. She mentioned the police and I tried to show her where the station was, but she was reluctant. I gave her a banana that I happened to have with me.
Around us, pedestrians just walked by.
I felt sad, powerless and perversely aware of myself doing a good thing that I wouldn’t normally do. Even in that moment of trying to help, I am aware of myself as if I am within my own hidden camera show.
Completely powerless to do anything. I gave money but she could not hold it. The coins I handed to her fell between her cold fingers and onto the floor, littered with cigarette butts. I picked up the coins and signalled for her to put them into her pocket, but she didn’t understand.
A lady stood then a few feet away. She said something to me in a broad accent I could not place. I asked if she could understand what the other lady was saying. She replied saying that she could speak Portuguese, Spanish and English but not that language. She felt unnerved by the homeless lady and her loud lament, and I think as much as anything, she had stopped to check that I was not being strange too.
I put the coins back into the homeless lady’s pocket and left, feeling awful and surreal and not knowing what to do. I got back to my flat, warm and cat-filled, and researched what to do. I looked out and could see the frost already freezing the window panes. Just imagine.
StreetLink seemed the right thing, so I registered exactly where I had seen her, but this was as much for me to attempt to get some closure, if I am honest.
Some of the stories of London don’t need lofty metaphors and hipster travelogues. Whilst there are certainly details worth sharing, it takes little elaboration to see the utter sorrow of some of these local lives that coexist alongside my own. My happy-go-lucky reality alongside someone weeping on a frozen bench.