Waterloo – Oxford Street
by George Pringle
Excerpt from my London Volume. “Steel & Industry” 2016
When it rains, a lake gathers on the road where the tarmac slopes. Reflected faces of office workers move on a smooth conveyor and under the railway bridges nearby are pubs. They smell of varnish, ale and carpets. An alley behind the station acts as a bus depot. “Not in Service” they rise against the high office block that leans on the station entrance. In this firmament of florescence, of ceiling tiles…you hardly notice Britannia, bearing her trident and torch of newfound liberty. War and Peace sit wretched either side to survey the many cranes which occupy the Shell site.
I always walk over Waterloo Bridge, “The Women’s Bridge”. Hungerford is full of tourists and swallows you into a mall with a gym. Westminster is un-walkable too except for after dark when returning from the West End. Only then, can you feel the enormity of the city. Then it’s really best, winter nights when there’s nobody save a stray tourist with a tripod. The city is really yours, then. But by day it is made of selfie sticks and candied nuts, gypsy heather grows in the gutter, glinting within its tinfoil. Brides and Grooms pose before parliament and a bagpipe player furiously blows, his oscillating siren dopplers, as you thunder past on a bus.
Waterloo Bridge is best for walking, though. It leads you in past the IMAX on a narrow strip of pavement. Buses jostle you, they make you feel small as you walk alongside a wall which conceals an underpass. People often leave things on this wall, like cans of cola or bottles of beer. Occasionally a tide of trash is sucked into a sandstone bay and in a divot on the bridge, people leave their gum to collect amongst the cigarettes and rotten rinds of tangerines.
People always leave these sacred three together: Butts, gum and rind. This matrix only broken by the one true rebel, who every month or so tosses a banana skin as though it has never been done before. This “Banana Revolutionary” is quite the character, always thinking what they do, an original activity. But little do they know, I’ve been walking this road for three years now and sure as anything, each time the skin shrinks, another “individual” catches wind and comes to crowns this thing with fresh, yellow flesh.
There’s a indent on the bridge where at a certain time in the morning the silhouettes of commuters bend and distort in the young sun. How they hurry across, never to stop and survey: To the right, the East and then, left, to the West. Past and future is what they mean to me. The right, Hackney…Walkie Talkie…Land of Warehouse Living and left to Westminster, Chelsea. Polished brass and foyer plants. Houses and bridges like wedding cake.
Gulls circle Waterloo Bridge. Sometimes they zoom alongside and sometimes they play that game where they perch on a lamppost before launching themselves to the wind. They gain momentum, circling wildly. They follow this “runway” like the airplanes, which follow the river, too. And at the very end of the bridge, a Shag is always sat on a mooring post in the river. The post drips with shit. The Shag always sits with regal importance.
The traffic lights at Strand attract strange combinations of people. Tourists in trainers, business types, dancers with duffle bags. They all linger, with aimless energy before the doors to Maplin.
Up in Covent Garden, Penhaligon wafts Oud. A waxwork of Connery stands by the door to “Bond in Motion”. The person flogging tickets at the desk and the guy dispensing flyers outside have nothing to indicate, in their eyes that they are slowly losing their minds.
And it is here, after the Opera House, on the corner of Long Acre, that you will slip into a true consumerist paradise. To the right, is a “Pret” and then two minutes along, another, towards Leicester Square. There’s another, too, I didn’t mention at the end of Waterloo Bridge. They split, like atoms across the city, dividing and multiplying. And inside, people hunch over smartphones, hands move to mouthes without glancing down. For they know exactly what will go in, how it will taste, how long it will take, to consume.
The charm of secondhand book shops, the Chinese Apothecary, of doomed Denmark Street, all contrived respite before I decide which way to go. You see, from here, on Charing Cross Road, there are two possibilities. Either I will throw myself to the throng of Oxford Street or I will creep down the alleyway alongside where Foyles used to be. Under that arch, I will find myself suddenly in Soho.
If I choose Oxford Street, though, then I will pass the Crossrail Site. It sprawls, all fallen Troy, buildings, like open circuitry. Sharp on the left past the tube are noodle bars and phone accessory shops. Strident, synthetic music blasts to a fleet of emojis. Strips of LEDs convulse and flash like christmas on meth. Sunglasses cascade on carousels that nudge shoulders spookily in the wind and mannequins wearing “fine leather jackets”, blanch, faceless and white.
Halfway down, stands a building site, on the right. The facade of a period building hangs like scenery for a missing set. And behind it is Hanway Street, which bends, to conceal Bradley’s and Flamenco Clubs. For how long will they be there…A crane peers from the site of a former language school and two doors down the Bar that felt like swinging London got gutted and made-over. It now feel’s like an Oligarch’s jet.
Oxford Street is more sleek these days. More metal. There are fewer Hare Krishnas, or maybe I just miss them. Maybe their chorus blends, disappearing amongst the hacksaws and banging steel poles. But new disciples, dressed in Orange gather here. Construction workers guard their sites, they move in luminous packs. The Orange Agents drum to a walking crescendo which will end at the corner with the crossroads to Regent Street and as you walk this street the shops will only get bigger and brighter. Cavernous, on the corner is Topshop, our orchestral pit. A symphony of writhing limbs, of hangers that slide and click across spectral autotune frequencies.