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London at its best and very worst

Leaving my Travelodge the next morning, with the street cordoned off

Shortly after midnight on Sunday night, I walked from Finsbury Park station to the Travelodge on Isledon Road. Almost concurrently (I don’t know whether slightly before or slightly after), a van swerved onto the pavement outside the Muslim Welfare House, killing one and injuring 11 in an anti-Muslim terrorist attack.

I didn’t know this at the time, having missed the atrocity by a matter of minutes. But at 6:30am yesterday morning, the TV news channel turned on by itself, and I bolted awake, adrenaline pumping, as I learnt what had happened down the road. When I left the Travelodge, I discovered the area had been entirely cordoned off, from the gym next door onwards. There’s something creepy about the birdsong of a traffic-free London street.

Clearly, it’d be bad taste to bring myself into this – this was a targeted assault against the Muslim community, and I don’t want to disrespect the actual victims by mulling over hypotheticals. It’s academic and irrelevant, whether or not I’d have been hit had I been passing at the time.

That said, I’m spooked. Who isn’t, these days? London Bridge was a matter of weeks ago, Manchester just a couple of weeks before that. And I’m sure we all know the soundbites about how we shouldn’t let it affect us – apparently if we dare concede any fear, then hate and division have won. But honestly, when you wake up to this shit every other week, the sense of low-level imperilment is becoming harder and harder to tune out.

Earlier that day, I’d been sitting with my parents and sister in Finsbury Park Costa Coffee – the same one later seen on news footage – when a man flipped out and began to smash up the counter (I don’t think anyone was harmed). With no time to think, instinct took over – my dad looked for ways to help, my mum and sister bolted, and I slipped into journalistic, crime-scene-witness mode. Afterwards, we discussed how our gut reactions would have served us in the event of something worse. We also discussed how palpable the tension was; how much aggro was waiting to boil over on that oppressively hot day.

Since I moved out of London, I’ve become re-sensitised to its stressors. The noise, the crowds, the traffic – they all seem so galling when I visit, I can barely remember how I managed to put up with them for eight years. Aside from that, the version of London I’m getting is mostly through the news. A London of burning tower blocks and homicidal van drivers, where rampant inequality or cold-blooded tribalism can no longer be treated as overblown concerns.

The bad side of London, then, has latterly come to seem very bad indeed. However, my latest visit also served to highlight the side that’s irrepressibly good. I felt I saw it at its best and worst over the course of a single weekend.

After the Costa Coffee fracas, I met a friend near Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. To our left, was a tub-thumping Christian yelling about how Jesus saves. To our right, three Muslim men were praying, seemingly not deterred. Everyone else was picnicking and enjoying the sun, a tableau of multiculturalism at its unremarkable best. In London, such juxtapositions are totally ordinary, not the exception but the rule.

A little later I headed to Frank’s in Peckham, on the top floor of a multi-storey carpark. For the price of a few beers, you can see most of London in panorama. And there are still places like this – places you can go for free, where the simple joy of gawping at the skyline has not yet been commandeered by capitalists. Relatedly, no aggression up here.

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I went on a couple of runs round my old area – taking in the reservoir, some woodland paths and parks. I sat in Highbury Fields and watched the barbecues, the picnics, the peacocking summer style tribes. I walked down streets that had once felt like my streets, where things had happened, and savoured the tang of what I left behind.

London in general felt scarier than normal. Scarier and more stressful. And after waking up to a terrorist attack, I was glad to be leaving. But I also saw a London where people were making the best of things, and carving out space to be silly and civilised and look after each other in amongst the bullshit of the city. On some level this place will always feel like home.


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Abi Millar

British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands

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