Between two worlds


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Category: Travel Date: 15 Oct 00

Ira Mathur reflects on her recent trip to London


Rain: The quality and sound of rain is as different as the countries themselves. There, a fine, foggy, near freezing sleet that wraps itself around solid buildings and circles the street lamps, illuminating green and autumnal dull, gold leaves.


Here, a cooling, rising rush of steam as water hits burning pavements, its torrent swaying the bougainvillea and wetting the Northern Range, at times taking the humidity to a fevered pitch, at others, cooling hot, sweaty brows.


Sounds: Here, through my window, I hear refrains of pan, heavy and light, ringing out like many clanging bells, celebratory disconnected peals, culminating in a seamless harmony when the panmen finally, triumphantly, put together all the elements and play the entire tune. A dog barks into the air, soft now, after the downpour.


There, it is the steady roar of traffic, the sounds of a thousand stilettos, boots, shined and patchy shoes, thundering up and down stairs and platforms of train stations, the deep echo of an electric guitar in a tunnel, the palpable swishing about of six million people in London where smells and sounds of many worlds converge, from Morocco to Montenegro, almost taken over now by immigrants and refugees. Like groups of chattering tropical birds descended from the tower of Babel, they serve up offerings from their countries with spices and tobacco, sweets and silver, long hubli bubbly pipes out of which you can inhale the essence of apples in smoky Arabic bars, or jump out of your skin with a strong Turkish coffee. London has a capacity to absorb all this, mutate with it, and remain herself, classic, offbeat, exciting, sordid, indefinable, with endless possibility.


Sights: Here, it is the familiar sight of the Northern Range, the terracotta galvanised roofs, the occasional bright peach or yellow house buried in the hills, or a white one rising out of the landscape. The many shades of green, glinting pale yellow in bright sunlight, fading into a uniform army green at night. The glare, the bank girls at lunchtime, the panyards, the vendors, and speedy taxi drivers, the cool relief of air-conditioned malls, the cocooning safety of seeing people you know while you drive about.



There, London has to be seen from the London Eye, a mammoth steel wheel construction off Waterloo Bridge, which spins you around and you see the cityís many angles. Even on this typical sleety rainy day, it is packed with people eager for a birdís eye view of this city. As the doors clang you shut into your cubicle, and the steel wheel takes off, you can see the long stretch of the Thames, with its many bridges and barges, winding through the city.


There, beyond, is the Tate Modern, the new art gallery. And here is Big Ben with its famous spire and cross. And there, the baroque antique houses of Parliament, with its Union Jack flying high. Chimneys and red buses, and moving umbrellas. The wheel descends, comes full circle. Look up and you see through the rain-drenched glass, other cubicles and convoluted shapes of steel.


On the ground, itís a monkeyís tea party. Donít buy the newspapers to befuddle your head more with Tony Blairís politics, or the latest serialisation in the Sunday Times on Princess Diana by another hustler.


Itís the soul of the people that counts and in the hub you can speculate endlessly on peopleís lives. A smoking man emerges from a darkened alleyway, a girl in a red sweater stands arguing with a man in a smart car. The West End on a Friday night is jammed with half-dressed girls outside techno clubs choosing to be sexily revealing in this stinging cold rain, and men in leather jackets spewing cologne and loud talk. Groups of friends meet in Sushi bars and China Town, outside cinema, faces flame inside and go cold outside.


Londonís charm lies, too, in its odd nooks and crannies - the antique bookshops with little ladders, and dusty old books, and musty men, the cold Satchi warehouse with its disturbing clever exhibits, Richmond Park, where the deer roam, streets strewn with wet autumn leaves.


Here: Came home to wonderful warmth and familiarity of island life, small in scale but unmistakably also a monkeyís tea party. To stories of Abu Bakr and his tapes, of a ministerís $12 million account discovered by computer hackers, of fired ministers and Government bagmen. Amidst the waste, the ruthless grabbing of money from the weighed down men and women in our streets, there is now, infinite tenderness towards these pannists, who, practising somewhere in these hills deep into the night and at the crack of dawn, have finally perfected their tune. Listen to those notes, rising now, falling now, until it fades away and reverberates long after.


In the end itís all that matters. Take time out and be a detached spectator: separate the ugly from the amusing; watch the moment fill up with the monkeyís tea party, and music that rings straight from the purest kernel of the human heart.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur