Monday, 8 July 2013

Surprise London

I won’t be too slushy, but there are days when I fall in love with this city. When I used to travel to the centre from the suburbs as a child, it was usually for one of two things: visiting my mum’s office, which was just off Regent’s Street, or it was trips to Oxford  Circus for the summer and Christmas sales, at a time when there were only two sales a year and you didn’t see signs for ‘Mid Season Sale’ and ‘Blue Cross Sale’ every other week. This was a long time ago; I mean, we used to get the Jubilee Line from Charing Cross in the days before Canary Wharf!

Even though I just went to the city centre for one of two known things, it still felt magical and wonderful. I didn’t always know which shops my mum or dad would take me to, although I could usually hazard a guess. One time I walked around the perfume counters at Dickens and Jones with my mum. I must have been about seven, and I thought that if I could find a tiny bottle of perfume, I would be able to buy it with my Christmas money. As I looked around for something that was less than a pound, a salesperson handed me two perfume samples. My mouth dropped open and I just stared at her – as far as I was concerned, she had given me two  £15 bottles of perfume. For free! The woman said, ‘Aw. She’s struck dumb,’ to my mother, which I thought meant that I had suddenly become stupid, so then I felt a weird combination of delight, shock, gratitude, and confusion.

The point of that story is, it was the first time that I remember London surprising me. I had gone out expecting one thing, and been surprised and delighted by something else.

Last week, I went to London to take part in Gemma Seltzer’s Speak to Strangers Bankside project, and to photograph the Body Gossip flash mob on the South Bank. It was pouring with rain and even though I prefer not to carry an umbrella in central London (it’s far too crowded, it makes it hard to overtake people, and I’m not very tall) I thought I had better for the sake of my camera.

I came out of London Bridge Station and couldn’t move for people huddling by the entrance, sheltering from the rain. As I squeezed past, put my umbrella up and walked west, I saw a young man in a university graduation gown with a woman who I presumed was his mother. I thought: how random. I looked around but couldn’t see any other people in gowns. Then I started to cross over the road towards Southwark Cathedral, and it was like a scene from The Walking Dead, when all of a sudden, walkers come from nowhere. Only these weren’t zombie walkers, fortunately; just gowned ones. They all came out of the cathedral with parents and friends and partners, and lots of umbrellas.

It was fantastic. I had expected to run into office workers on their lunch break or groups of tourists, but not university graduates with gowns and umbrellas. There was the young woman who pulled her gown up over her head, like a hoodie. The mothers in saris. The older man holding an umbrella over his partner with a younger man behind them holding an umbrella over his girlfriend. It was all rather sweet. I snapped away as unobtrusively as I could.

Once they’d gone, and I’d seen Gemma, I carried on walking along the river. I saw a group of schoolboys with messenger bags walking along the sandy shore of the Thames near the Oxo Tower. I took photos of the Body Gossip flash mob and tried to read their messages of body love from afar. Looking at the photos later, I saw things that I expected people to like about themselves – eyes, hair, smile – and things that pleasantly surprised me – six-pack, height, jaw-line. It’s a worthwhile idea, and I hope more schools and employers join in with the next flash mob.

When I walked past them, I noticed something greenhouse and shed-like. A closer look told me what it was:

It’s a great project – just what London needs. There are separate sections for various plant families: potato, tomato, daisy, peas and carrots. From top to bottom there are flowers, vegetables and herbs. It’s joyful, beautiful and educational – the golden three!

The group that designed the Queen’s Walk Window Gardens is called Wayward Plants. It says the gardens are ‘large-scale allotments created from reclaimed windows’ and created by volunteers. It is part of the South Bank’s rather splendid Festival of Neighbourhood which runs until Sunday 8th September. 

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