Oxford Street review
Oxford Street is where everyone is supposed to go to do their shopping, because it's the busiest shopping street in London. But I don't rate it all that much because it's full of boring high street shops. Apart from Selfridges at the Marble Arch end, and maybe the big flagship stores of John Lewis, HMV and Top Shop, there isn't really much of interest. They've got Debenhams and House of Fraser, and the Disney Store, I suppose, but it's basically just everyday high street stuff... banks and mobile phone shops, chemists, electrical stores, fast food restaurants, well-known clothes places (M&S, BHS, Gap, Next, River Island and Primark), sports shops, and shoe shops. It's not the kind of place where you'll end up buying gifts.
It is also incredibly busy. And when I say busy, what I mean is this: it's heaving. You can have traffic jams on the pavement. People have to pick a lane to walk in. Imagine if every shop in London had a fire drill at exactly the same time, and thousands of shoppers swarmed out onto the streets to have their names taken. That is the amount of people I am talking about. You've got all kinds of life going on. Shoppers bustling and barging and banging their bags as they try and shave a few seconds off their day; street cleaners sweeping up beside their big truck of brushes, and bus stops every five feet with fifty thousand people standing at them.
Even though the street is bursting with billions of bodies, once you've been here a few times you'll start to notice some regulars. Five times out of ten you will see one of God's spokesmen shouting scripture opposite Top Shop, on the corner of Oxford Circus. He'll have a big billboard of prayers by his feet and one of those big loudhailers so he can spread the word at fifty million decibels. Every day he says that Jesus is coming, and every day he never comes. He's like a suitor waiting for his date. Sometimes you get a little parade of Christians coming down the street as well, holding a big crucifix and singing songs, and handing out flyers to everyone they meet. Hare Krishnas are better though -- they march along banging tambourines and drums, dressed up in pastel robes and skinheads. Muslims don't seem to bother with any of that show-business stuff. They just have a little table on the pavement, handing out copies of whatever it is they're peddling.
I'm a bit of a cold-hearted cynic when it comes to beggars, so let me apologise in advance for this next section. My problem with beggars is that they always seem to be better dressed than me. (Which, admittedly, isn't too difficult.) It all seems a bit suss... like a con job... I'm watching a homeless bloke right now, for example (as I'm writing this), begging beside my coffee shop window, and every time the steady stream of punters dries up, he whips out his mobile phone and has a two-minute chat on it. Every time you drop 50p in his cup he's not spending it on food -- he's using it to top up his pay-monthly cellphone contract. I saw one woman holding an umbrella and a handbag once. She wasn't even pretending to be poor... a fancy handbag on one arm, and a plastic McDonalds cup in the other begging for money.
You get all kinds of beggars down Oxford Street. The classic type just scrawl a few words onto a soggy bit of cardboard and then sit there all day looking miserable. Sometimes they have a skinny dog with them to keep them company. He always looks miserable as well. I'm guessing that these people are genuinely homeless, and probably deserve a bit of sympathy. (Not from me though, I'm too tight. I'd only give them some money if they promised to spend it on the dog.) But then you've got your professional beggars who camp out next to the tourist hotspots. You can spot these guys a mile off because they always have a fancy dress costume of blankets and newspapers over their clean-shaven faces and decent-looking shoes. They probably get the bus home to their wife and kids at 5 PM, and then it's straight down the pub to spend their winnings.
Other beggars are just plain nuts -- the streets have made them mental. I never give these guys any money because they'd probably just try and eat it. The worst beggars of all are the aggressive little old ladies in shawls, carrying fat babies. They spy your eyes looking at them and then descend on you holding a little tin-foil bit of heather. Apparently you are supposed to swap their tatty flowers for some hard-earned money, and then you will get good luck for the rest of the day.
Not so long ago you used to have people doing caricatures and chalking pictures onto the pavement. At least that took some skill. And you'd have people writing poems too. I remember there used to be an old bloke on Westminster Bridge who would sit there sealing up little poems into envelopes. He would sit there on a blanket with a load of little tea lights round his feet. He seemed like a wise old sage so I stumped up some money for one once -- eager to see what his poem was like. But when I opened up the envelope all it said was "water". That was it -- a one word poem. And of course you can't ask for your money back, can you -- not from a homeless person. Welcome to London -- you've just been diddled by Oliver Twist!
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