Saturday, July 7, 2012


The great railway stations of London come grander, and more beautiful, but Paddington Station, where I’m sitting waiting for a train to Oxford, has a lovely energy to it, especially in the morning before 9. The high glassed curved roof, like impossible vaulting, gives a beautiful indirect light.

People stride purposefully in all directions. They’re in light jackets and coats, for it’s a chilly drizzly early July day here in London. Most are commuters of some kind in tidy office clothes, the men with briefcases and the women with good handbags; some are like me, with luggage large and small, heading to somewhere out of town...  A disembodied woman’s voice makes announcements, and then occasionally a man’s voice comes on the loudspeaker system , it’s the mayor of London on tape! - warning of the disruptions that will come later this month because of the Olympics and telling us to pay attention and “get ahead of the Games”, the slogan of the month here..

I got here by tube, two District line trains, both of them packed with morning commuters. They were clean and pressed, and also withdrwn into themselves, getting set for the day ahead, and trying to tune out the crush of people around them. At least that’s how I read their faces and body language. With my small pack and shoulder bag I was the awkward anomaly in my train car, taking up extra room.

My train to Oxford isn’t for another ninety minutes (I have a fixed-time advance purchase bargain ticket) , but I wanted to get here early to see this morning rush, to feel the energy.  There are people with bicycles, commuters of a different kind, who pedal to work then change out of their spandex and raingear and into office clothes. I saw small fleets of them in the rain-wet streets this morning from the bus that carried me to the tube. They look purposeful, like all dedicated urban cyclists. And there are people sitting waiting, chatting to ech other in many languages, and keeping a keen eye on the lit-up train schedule board, that shifts and changes all the time. And there are pigeons calmly strolling around on the marble floor and looking dazed.

What will the city look like in three weeks, in the middle of the Olympics? It’s hard to visualise. The transit authority has signs up everywhere exhorting people to plan ahead to try to avoid congeston. For those who are free to change their hours of work, or who can take weeks off, the Olympics is a hassle, but manageable. Many however are trapped here with scheduled jobs, and for them it’s going to be a frustrating time.

That said, I have to talk a little about the way that transit in London has transformed itself in the last few years. There’s the new Jubilee line, with futuristic gigantic cement tunnels and moving staircases, built to cross-connect Westminster, Waterloo, and London Bridge for example, a diagonal access route across town from northwest to southeast. It’s got the brute force and bravado of a big Chinese or Thai megaproject.

So does the Shard, a tall jagged-topped pillar of glass-clad steel that w as formally opened yesterday near London Bridge, the tallest building in Europe..

I was in the area near London Bridge to go to Borough Market. It’s one of the treasures of London, not just the market but the whole area to the south of the river there, full of old courtyards and generous factory spaces that date back centuries. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture horse-drawn carts carrying huge beer barrels through the narrow cobbled streets. 

Many traditionalists hate the Shard, an ultra-modern Renzo Piano-designed spike between the Borough Market and the river. I think it works. It’s a confident punctuation point in the traditional low-rise landscape, making us value it more.

Now the clock is almost at 9.15. The commuting crowd has largely given way to travellers with luggage. There’s less purposefulness and more questioning wandering.These are people who don’t come here every day, for whom the station is unfamiliar new territory.

Recent trains announced include trains to Cardiff, to Worcester, to Bristol, to Swansea, and several headed in the Oxford direction, to Moreton in Marsh and farther.. The mind’s eye heads west to rolling green country, softer accents, a slower pace. And this temple of transport is the key to all that.

Long ago  one of the first Agatha Christies I read as a ten or eleven year old was the”The 4:50 from Paddington” in which a woman sees a murder committed through a train window. It’s a good elaborate story, as I remember it. But mostly what has stayed with me is the title. Paddington as a place of departure, or story, or intersecting lives: that’s the large mystery in the end.

Somehow, in train stations as in life, we usually manage to find our way in the tangle of signs and blurry announcements and anxieties, and through the crowds of people all striving to get where they want to go...

A few London notes:
I was staying with friends here, the fabulous photographer Richard Jung, who shot the studio shots for the BURMA book and all the four-colour books I worked on before that., including Hot Sour Salty Sweet. He and his family live in London and it’s a treat to see them. Last night we ate out at a casual thoughtful restaurant in Clapham called Abbeville Kitchen. Highly recommended. There’s local meat and fish, slow-cooked mains, and a great relaxed-but-attentive staff.  (I had delicious lamb chops over simmered eggplant with a dash of romesco on top; other plates included salt veal over lentils and more; beef shin with huge butter beans; and simple mussels.)

And on my first day here I was lucky to get to the Tate Modern, where there’s a Damien Hirst retrospective, brilliant tour-de-force things, except (and you might disagree) that the room of gold versions of earlier work, pieces that he sold at Sothebys, feels empty and an undermining of what he’s done before. There’s a recreation of his life and death piece: one room has butterflies pinned to large boards, and shtrays full of butts; the other is humid and warm, with butterfly pupae on boards on the wall, and lots of emerged butterfiesl fluttering around the many plants and sugar water sources that are out for them.  It’s a spectacle of irridecent blue and dots of red, and leaf-camouflage, and dots of brown on huge quivering wings and... Mother nature kind of trumps the artist, and we marvel at her work rather than contemplating the construct within which the butterflies are presented.

And then I saw the Edvard Munch show, also at the Tate Modern. It was astonishing. I was very ignorant, had no idea of his work, had never understood what an exciting palette he had, or how compelling his paintings are. If you can, to get to it; the other option is to go to Oslo, for most of the work was from the museum there.

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