The Rabbit's Laugh Outrage au Drapeau

The Rabbit's Laugh

Outrage au Drapeau

The Claws of Time

Become a well-known rake around town through bluff and panic

London, England
February, 2002

Time is an uncompromising blade that cuts through the heart of London, and slices our lives into shivers of frantic energy. There is so much to do! There is so little time! At any moment there might be two hundred activities: theatres, operas, films, comedies, not to mention all the museums, exhibitions, or readings. There are bars beyond count, restaurants to sample, a torrent of possibilities. Little wonder I end up in the local pub. You can only relax in familiar territory. When I had been in London for two months, my old friend Emma came to visit.

"Let's go out!" She was excited to be in the capital. I grinned like I'd lost my homework, knowing that she didn't mean let's go to the dingey pubs of Southwark, where I work, or Caledonian Road, where I lived. I didn't want Emma to think I was some knows-nothing non-swanky local pub guy.

Unfortunately, that was precisely what I was.

"We could go to a play." I tried to remember my London Guidebook. "Plays are in Leicester Square, the West End. The west End is also notable..." I was quoting as fast as I could now, "...notable for its many fine and varied, um, restaurants, eateries, wine bars and even a traditional English pub or two!" I finished in a hurried squeal. She looked at me. "Well, great, though we may only need one."

It would have been easier if there had been just one, rather than the two hundred available for a meal and drink before the play. As I hope to be taken for a man, I had to choose one straight away, using guesswork and a prayer.

I hoped that there might be a seat, that I might catch the barman's eye, that it might not be too fashionable, or not fashionable enough, or not too expensive, or not too cheap, that we may not enter and be attacked for being, or not being, not Kurdish. These, ladies, are just some of the anxieties that can pour like ice and petrol through a man's intestines when he's asked to make a random decision on no more evidence than is available to you, but for which he knows you'll blame him and never say a word about it for six months when it will come up to trump an entirely unrelated argument.

I'd rather just spin a bottle.

Harried in Time

Time hurries us on at the end of a bayonet. London is the largest city in Europe, formed from countless smaller villages, with the result that everywhere you want to go is so far from everwhere else you want to go, and all at the same time. I have friends here, remarkable people that I admire, and I never see them. They are always hurtling away from me, or I from them, and our journeys never meet. We are fragments of memory in each others' mind, and can never be joined.

Everything is far apart, but tied together by the taut web of the transport system. We rush around like angry spiders from one point to another, from Islington to Shepherd's Bush, from Marylebone to the West End, searching for our next insect bite of pleasure or production, we hurtle through the miles by bus or underground train in restless discontent. Until suddenly, it all breaks down, and we are sent crashing into each other, flailing, unable to stop.

This happens a lot. There is a strike. It all stops. There is snow. It stops. There is sun, or rain, or wind, it stops. It seems impossible to describe an atmospheric condition that will not have an adverse effect on the transport system in London.

In desperation, the Greater London Council will start charging motorists for the driving into the city centre to make congestion pay for itself. The result? Determined motorists will attempt, in gangs, to disrupt the system. And bring it all crashing, to a stop. In other words, they want business as usual.

So much to do. I play indoor football, or rather I don't play, but look awkward and get in the other team's way. That's a useful tactic: it's hard to concentrate on the goal when there's a flailing elbow under your nose. I have taken up indoor climbing, a wonderful sport that allows you to discover whether one fingernail alone has strength equal to the weight of your entire body, and whether cute female instructors are charmed by the passion of your flapping limbs and the strange blubbing sound that occurs when you start to discover that it does not. I cycle on Sunday mornings throughout London, and shock myself, again and again, to discover that Regent's Park and Tottenham Court Road and Finsbury are connected to each other by land and are not islands surrounding an Underground station with some unknown sea in between.

Putting on the Ritz

I decide that even James Bond had to start somewhere and did not emerge fully-formed from the egg in front of a baccarat table in the Cafe Royale. He probably spent some time getting to grips with London with a copy of Time out and a puzzled, if utterly suave, frown. So I went on the mooch in Soho and the West end, noting down likely-looking, non-gay, non-broken-bottle-stabbing places (each to his own). Next time someone comes to visit I can swagger it a bit, act all knowing, top the nob, tilt my tile and get thrown out of the first place I assume we'll get into by pretending I know 'Gripper' Polnakov. That should impress the rustics.

In my bid to sample all the wonderful opportunities London makes available, I went to the English National Opera. This is an organisation dedicated to producing the great operas of the world, translated into English. They are also strapped for cash, so it was no surprise to find the Capture of Troy tansferred to a bleak urban landscape, one that required no set at all. All the cast members were also able to appear dressed in their bleak urban tracksuit bottoms and runners. I suspected the costumes were designed by Oxfam. I expect to see Aida, and Tristan und Isolde soon, all re-interpreted for a bleak, urban landscape.

They were wrong to locate the bleak part of the city on the surface. The surface, at least that's somewhere. Beneath the surface, in the Underground, in the Tube, that's nowhere at all. You cease to exist when you enter the Tube. Your life pauses at the entrance, and forty or sixty or one hundred minutes later it starts again as you leave the destination. In between, you are simply in between, neither alive nor dead. Life is up there, rushing over your head, Parliament, the park, the palaces, the pub, above you, a hundred meters up is where life happens. Down here, we wait for it to start again, and like the rats of the dark tunnels, time gnaws at us, time scurries past, time rushes away in dripping herds from the peering lights to the vortex beyond. We press on, we press on, and never look back.

 

 

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Big Ben

 

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Tower Bridge at Night

 

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Covent Garden

 

 

 

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The Facts

Where I stayed

How I got around:
London Transport. Good old tube.