The International Writers Magazine: New Eye on London
Shannon N. Snyder
I descended into Euston station, pulled further down by the fast pace of the crowd on their way to work, just like me. The escalators took me further and further underground and I quickened my pace as I followed the throngs of people onto the platform.
I glanced to my right at the giant sign outlining the blue veins of the Victoria Line, confirming that I was going the right way. I strategically made my way to the ends of the platforms, where I tried to convince myself that there were fewer people here and thus a shorter wait time. I stood behind rows of Londoners, listening to the cries of the worker who stood at the edge of the platform. He stood in a bright yellow vest, calling loudly for passengers to keep away from the platform, and blowing a sharp whistle to signal the closing of the train’s doors. I heard the automated, pleasant voice telling me to mind the gap, the whoosh of the train as it departed, and inched closer to the edge of the platform and my turn to board.
I could finally step into the train compartment, and pressed forward with the many other bodies. It was rush hour, and the passengers made themselves as compact as possible to allow room for the new people getting on. Today, I was lucky enough to snag a spot next to a pole to hold on to. This immediately brightened my mood; I was too short to reach the handles that dangled overhead and usually only had the wall of bodies around me to keep myself from stumbling as the train lurched forward.
I had four stops: Warren Street, Oxford Circus, Green Park, and finally Victoria. With each stop, pedestrians came and went; there were businessmen with long, expensive-looking coats and perfectly trimmed haircuts, young men and women in casual dress, often with a book or headphones in, and always people sitting with their eyes closed and heads tilted back. I surveyed all of them, in wonder of what they wore and what they read and where they were going.
||As I exited and briskly followed the bright yellow Way Out arrow, I ascended into the vast space of Victoria Station. I was tempted to pause my journey to look around the brightly-lit space to admire the flower stands, buy a cup of tea, or wander the aisles of Marks & Spencer’s. However, the flow of the crowd pulled me out of the station.
The Tube is quintessentially British, and a tribute to the organization and innovation of London. It was something that seemingly everyone navigated daily, and I wanted to experience the everyday rituals of a typical Londoner. I quietly observed how everything worked, and soaked in the habits of the people; I was a quick learner. I knew at rush hour to have my Oyster Card out and in my hand before I even got close to the scanner. The thought of damming up this swiftly moving river of people by wasting time rummaging around in my bag was unbearable. It would so easily point me out as inexperienced, and someone who was clearly not accustomed to the London way of life.
I knew to stand to the right side of the escalator so those who wanted to move even faster could get by, because if you weren’t standing on the correct side, you might be sharply jabbed in the side by the elbow of someone pushing past, accompanied by a cheeky “Sorry!” I knew to give up my seat for a member of the very scant elderly population, and God forbid I step through into the train before those departing had the chance to step off. I knew the rules, and prided myself on following them so closely. I felt cohesive with the rest of the nine to fivers, each of us a tiny molecule making up the winding snake that is the Victoria Line.
|After a few months of living in London, spring time finally arrived. As I traveled to my internship in Westminster, I noticed that the Eye was no longer shrouded by morning fog as I walked down Victoria Street. I could now see it peeking out over the tall buildings in front of me, and the sky above it was even a clear blue!
Every time that I saw this, I made a mental note that I really needed to walk past Parliament and Big Ben and the Eye, as the weather was getting nicer and I was so close.
One day after my internship I did walk down to Westminster Bridge, the warm sun shining out over the dirty River Thames. As I looked out over the water from my vantage point, I saw into the heart of one of the best cities in the world and breathed in a refreshing gulp of spring air. I had been craving this feeling of refreshment, and realized that all I had to do was to go above ground. This day was so beautiful, warm temperatures and not a cloud in the sky, but I had spent an hour of my morning underground, crammed into a crowded compartment with my face in a stranger’s armpit. I had enjoyed the challenge of learning to navigate the Tube, but I wasn’t sure that it was where I wanted to experience life as a Londoner anymore.
I had begun to dislike the silence of the Tube at rush hour; no one wanted to interact, everyone was given their solitude. I worried about having my headphones playing music too loudly, and felt that even a decibel too high would upset my fellow passengers. Perhaps this appreciation of solitude, sometimes misinterpreted as coldness or detachment, was a British quality that I simply couldn’t fake, or be comfortable with. I could descend into the Tube without any hesitation, was great at queuing and loved tea and sarcasm, but the solitude and lack of any emotion on the Tube felt lonely to me. It felt devoid of life to an American like me, so used to expressing my emotion as loudly as I wanted and at any time I pleased. I wanted to find a new way to experience everyday British life without taking the Tube.
||So I began to walk. I walked everywhere around the city, particularly on days of my internship. The day I stood on Westminster Bridge was the first day I began the hour-long trek back to my building. My route began from my internship on Medway Street, where I took the narrow pavement to a shortcut through Strutton Ground.
So I began to walk. I walked everywhere around the city, particularly on days of my internship. The day I stood on Westminster Bridge was the first day I began the hour-long trek back to my building. My route began from my internship on Medway Street, where I took the narrow pavement to a shortcut through Strutton Ground. There was a small farmer’s market here that I could wander through if I finished my work early enough, where fresh coffee and authentic Mexican food and cheap clothing and bouquets of flowers were being sold. There were several tiny bakeries and sandwich shops, although I was disappointed when I realized that the fresh smell of baking bread was not coming from one of these shops, but rather the Subway on the other side of the street.
From here, I followed the busy and colossally wide sidewalks of Victoria Street, with the bright red double deckers rushing by and workers handing out the daily evening newspapers. It was only a short walk to explore the buildings of Parliament, the Sea Life Aquarium, the Eye, or maybe the delightfully cozy-looking buildings of Millibank. However, my favorite route to take from Parliament Square was through Whitehall Road.
I loved to walk the busy street, surveying the various local pubs and mentally using the Early Haig monument in the middle of the road as a distance marker. On most days, I also noticed a group of protestors around this area waving a blue and yellow flag, with banners written in both the Cyrillic and English alphabets. I noted the repeated use of “Putin”; these people were Ukrainians protesting the recent uproar in their homeland. I’m sure, after the year of worsening conflicts, they’re still protesting.
|Around the Horse Guards Parade, I always walked past the throng of tourists gathered here, daring to get a close as they could to smile for a picture with the guard and horse. I always felt sorry for the guard, the object of so many touristy photographs. His career was certainly nobler than being something for onlookers to gawk at. My next distance marker was the Prince George, Duke of Cambridge Statue, his noble bronze steed facing me. I knew that once Prince George was in my sight that one of my favorite places in London was only a few blocks further. I saw Trafalgar Square in the distance, with Admiral Nelson resting upon the rising column.
The openness of Trafalgar Square drew me in, the beautiful fountains with the bronzed lions lying guard; it was the centerpiece of London. St. Martin-in-the-fields, the various embassies, and the National Gallery all provided the framework for this one splendid little piece of culture. My favorite part was the National Gallery; for free, I could see work by Caravaggio and Da Vinci and Boticelli and Titian. When else in my life would I get the chance to see such masterpieces on a whim, when would I ever again be able to say I could stop by the National Gallery every day after work just because I felt like it? If this had been an ordinary afternoon back home, I would more than likely be doing something like studying or buying groceries. This was a chance to see something amazing and new and exciting every day, and I certainly wouldn’t be looking at any Rembrandt paintings on the Tube.
||There was one afternoon in the later spring that I decided to stop by the National Gallery, as it was one of the last weeks that a visiting painting would be there. Although my art class had gone to see it, I wanted to soak in the intricacies of the painting once more. It’s called The Ambassadors, a work by the German painter Holbein in the 1500s. It shows two bearded men standing in a den, but the mastery of this painting lies in the anamorphosis depicted in it. An anamorphosis is a distorted projection that requires the viewer to stand in a certain location in order to see the recognizable image.
In The Ambassadors, I saw an elongated, sideways, and severely distorted skull if I looked at it from straight on, but only once I stood very close to the far left side of the painting did the skull came into a normal perspective. It was truly a masterpiece, and I rotated multiple times between different vantage points, noticing how my view of the skull changed each time. The next week, the painting had been shipped off to another museum somewhere in the world.
Walking out of the Gallery, I followed the Strand and turned onto Kingsway. I passed Holborn and Russell Square Station, and the enormous Victorian-styled Hotel Russell. I felt at home walking up and down these crowded streets, surveying the people I passed by, the vendors selling their wares, and occasionally stopped in a park to sip on a cup of tea. I liked this lifestyle immensely, and as I stood in front of the glass doors to building I lived in, I felt like a true Londoner.
© Shannon N. Snyder June 2015
Shannonsnyder001 at gmail.com