LONDON - MEMORIES OF GREY
Should I return to the place where I came from?
Go back to the dreary skies, the dusty streets, the smoke of old?
The sparrows left long time ago
Perhaps they knew what lay ahead
And a tiny robin now shivers alone on the bare winter trees,
Where once its family flocked in thousands
Easily spotted, baring its red breast for those who gaze.
Even the hill of primroses flowers no more.
And though I was raised in a fake gilded miniature palace
By parents who were not my own,
In the road of Prince Albert,
Overlooking Regent’s park with its mighty royal trees
Each one a slightly different shade of green
Which I climbed and fell from, scraping my boyish knees
Amidst the acorns and horse chestnuts littering the ground in autumn.
This was the place where I was born and lived and grew,
Where from the balcony I could view
The massive towers of the city scraping the sky in the distance,
Yet it never quite felt like home.
Sundays I would make my own
And crossed the thoroughfare alone
To visit all the foreign beasts who paced and climbed in iron cages
In the place they called the London Zoo.
There I stopped and stared at them and they stared back with empty eyes,
Glancing moments, as I stood transfixed in thought and sadness.
None of us were free.
But the weeks were long and fraught with danger.
I was called a Jesus killer each morning and evening
As I rode the buses with my olive skin, my crooked nose
And the stamp of Moses on my head.
Where all the faces of other youths were white and ruddy,
With hairless scalps and laced up boots, hiding the caps of steel
That hid beneath the polished leather.
I was the different one.
But soon I grew tired of the wicked words and violent slurs
And the fists and spittle that were thrown my way
And finally admitting “Yes, ‘twas I that killed the Christ”
I beckoned them forth to show their intentions
And I chose to fight them for their words.
This frail young child was growing strong
They knew me then as the one who did not fear
Because I did not care.
The blood would flow and bones would break anyway, mine or theirs.
And as another decade turned, the hairstyles and the fashions changed
And coloured spikes became the rage,
In some perverted parody of the old Mohawks of the far far west.
Blackened lipstick, blackened eyes and chains of pins and plastic leather walked in,
When denim walked out,
Those punkish teens would hang out in the streets of Chelsea or Kentish Town
Screaming anarchy from the rooftops.
One time each week, come rain or shine or snow
I travelled east to the marshes of Hackney,
With sports bag in hand I rode inside those metal snakes
That screeched and rumbled underground in hellish darkened tunnels.
And once arrived would don my kit and studded boots,
Which sank into the muddy grass as I chased and jumped and swore and shoved
To take control of that sodden leather ball in homage to the national sport.
Sometimes a hero I would be, as with one shot from sound left foot,
I’d fire that ball so straight and true to split the last line of defence
And find its target hanging low between the wooden posts of victory,
That netted, nylon rope.
Fantasies of Wembley Stadium I would have,
When once in 1966 the national crowd had cause to roar.
I remember most, the sleet of winter, monstrous clouds hanging low each day
When icy winds chewed your ears and fingers - and the rain fell sideways.
For summer was gone in a moment.
A few short weeks when the smell of roses and daisies filled the air
And the people lay sweating on the grass after the innings,
With children scrambling in pursuit of soft ice cream
Dished out in scoops with chocolate flakes
From rusty vans with bells blasting out their nursery rhyme tunes.
But summer days passed by too fast and soon the winter came again.
The skeleton trees with skinny broken fingers
Pointing to the dark threatening sky as if to say “Beware”.
The freezing air would bite your bones
And every downpour stung your face like a thousand angry bees.
When night time fell, I spent my time wandering the streets
From Piccadilly, with its neon glare,
To Soho and to Leicester Square, where the prostitutes waited in the shadows
And all the theatres and playhouses stood, fronted by their flashing signs
Attracting tourists in their droves to see the actors prancing there
And to watch the trending shows.
Thousands of shops and eateries lined the roads
Of Oxford Street, Bond Street, Soho and all around,
Where trendy folk would gather and stroll with friends to spend a month’s wages
On the finest garments and expensive foods, sipping creamy coffee,
Although tea was the drink of the common folk.
All about the West End were the music pubs which I preferred
With rock & roll played out so loud, it burst your ears and made you shake.
I watched those men with old guitars which belted out their rebellious noise
And thought - one day that will be me
And soon enough indeed it was.
While the disco fans would pack the clubs with lightening floors and glitter balls
And sup on coloured cocktails from strangely crafted glasses
Dressed like birds of paradise performing contortionist dances to attract a mate
When full enough with alcohol they dared.
‘Twas the fad of the day.
The wealthy locals would dine out in the finest restaurants
Of Park Lane or Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Kensington and Sloane Square,
Where the best hotels were found, marbled floors and chandeliers
And casinos filled with the hanging smoke of posh cigars,
Where money was flung without a thought and dice were thrown and cards were dealt.
These were the places where lady Luck roamed.
The exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in St. James Street and all around
Reserved for lords and sirs and masons
Filled with these dusky grey old men
Inspecting and examining the financial dealings of the week
Coughing and huffing, their faces hidden behind huge newspapers
Whilst sipping whiskey from weighty crystal tumblers
Assessing the gossip of the day and pondering to themselves,
But never spoke.
But in the east, the gangsters ruled, the Krays were kings
Of the pubs and gambling houses and strip clubs.
With their cronies they governed with fists of iron and knuckles of brass
Extorting money from shops galore to pay for mock lavish lifestyles,
Justifying their murderous actions, claiming it was only their own whom they hurt.
This imposing city, streets paved with gold
And the grand majesty of ancient buildings that were hailed in all their splendour
By foreign eyes and proud patriots,
Who ignored the twisted history behind the now crumbling facades.
This was the London of textbook fantasy,
But ‘tis the grime and dirt and trashy streets with copycat houses and stale red roofs that I recall.
These memories are mine, I will not be denied them. There is no glory in stone.
And the men who called themselves cultured
With their darkened suits and bowler hats, black umbrellas and briefcases
Were far too dignified to throw even a penny to those that they called tramps.
The lost and forgotten people
Who had only the gloomy and foreboding alleyways to call their home
And the chewing gum spattered paving stone on which to lay their weary heads,
Making use of the discarded old newspapers and cardboard
As blankets during the freezing nights.
This magnificent and illustrious city
Was their hell.
And the influx of those from the other lands that came
With visions of fortune or fame
Found only the urine-soaked stairwells of flaky grey council blocks
Where hoods were worn and drugs dished out with a quick nod and a wink
And the exchange of a few crumpled notes.
By now the roads no longer felt the tread of a hoof.
They groaned and crumpled from the heaving weight of metal boxes.
All shapes and sizes wheeled their way across the blackened tar
Bellowing deafening noise and fumes of death
To silence and suffocate the nightingales in Berkeley Square.
We breathed without a thought, assuming we were still alive,
Yet never certain.
The bus lanes came and the overburdened arteries of London
Now became fully choked as three lanes were reduced to two
And if perchance you owned a car, half your weekly wage would go
To speeding fines or parking tickets,
The dreaded yellow lines became red and around in circles you would go
To find a place to rest your wheels,
But these places were hard to find
And the governments took you money.
Ten thousand pubs and ten thousand more
Supplied the ales and drinks galore
To numb the minds of all those who worked until their weary hands would bleed
And laboured ‘till their backs would break,
Becoming bended at the knee
As if bowing to their graves.
The greasy spoons at break of day
Were brim full of these working men
Who filled their stomachs with bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and toast,
Washed down with cups of strongest tea
Diluting the pints of bitter drunk the night before.
The “Full English” it was called and famed throughout the world.
These were the men who built the city,
Yet recognition never came their way.
In the great parliament houses all the politicians fought
Over who should speak and who say naught.
What rules and laws be passed or changed.
Empty promises of a brighter future
That still has not arrived.
This schizophrenic piece of land for filthy rich or filthy poor
Torn in half by the murky brown waters of the Thames
Where tugboats and barges came and went
Under bridges split by towers and lined with rusted iron ropes and girders.
And of all the markets, Camden reigned supreme
I preferred the old junkyard where I bought my first guitar
And became a man.
But now it’s all designer clothes you’ll find and pay in hundreds
Where once, everything was no more than “just a fiver mate”.
Covent Garden, much the same
Where rainbows of flowers were sold for pennies
Has now evolved into a place
That will quickly steal a hundred pounds from your pocket
Should you choose to stop and have a meal
Or buy a garment or an ornament
From any tiny shop that nestles there.
On every corner stands a pub with label of king or queen, prince or duke or duchess,
Streets and avenues and roads, too many to count, with saintly names.
Buildings in thousands with titles of royalty and stateliness,
Palaces of Kensington, Westminster, Buckingham and more,
Earls Court, Kings Cross, Tower Bridge, the Marble Arch, the great Cathedral of St Paul,
The Bank of England and Queen’s Chapel,
The noble dome of the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House and Royal Observatory.
A million things royal it seemed
And this imperial family would stamp its name on every piece of London ground,
Yet still the sick and elderly died of cold from lack of heat in winter.
Heavy, is the word I’d use
To describe this city, muddled and confused,
Where now the languages of all the world are spoken by people of all designs.
Oh, how the confidence has turned to despair
Empty people, soulless, hands in pockets, eyes downward turned.
Drained and bereft of hope, go about their daily drudgery,
And the imaginings that someday they would enjoy a better life
Have disappeared into the mist.
This city is now called cosmopolitan,
A microcosm of the whole planet,
Where you will find everything and everyone.
Every God and every culture have found a way
To reserve a small part of this grey vastness
As their own.
This prose is not a history, nor a description it be.
Merely thoughts in my mind of sights and sounds
That will never leave me.
‘Twould take a million words or more, a few short verses will not do
To tell a fuller story of this proud and wicked city.
The recollections of love and hate that now crawl through my brain,
Thoughts of childish laughter seem so distant now
And in their place a fear has grown.
I remain still and quietly watch from afar
And it seems to me from what I see,
This town once filled with hopes and dreams
Into a monster now has grown.
One day, I may return.