West End review
The West End roughly encompasses the area around Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden. A lot of the biggest theatres can be found down Shaftesbury Avenue, Haymarket and the Strand. This is where you'll get a proper taste of London -- bright lights and terrible traffic. Lots of life, lots of strife. Lots of noise, and six inches of pavement per person.
Shaftesbury Avenue is absolutely heaving with people tonight. You get carried along in the throng, like a fallen leaf in the sea, because there's nowhere else to go. It's very easy to lose your rag in a crowd like this. People clip your ankles and cut you up, and you're forever looking at the backs of coats, and dodging rucksacks that are slung over their shoulders like head-height rocky outcrops. Some people erect gigantic umbrellas and use them as a pavement forcefield, whilst other ones just freeze inexplicably, totally oblivious to the unstoppable mob that is coming up behind. If you want some space then you literally have to step out into the road and take your chances with the buses and bikes, scooters and tooters.
The buses are full of faces peering out of steamed up windows tonight. You can tell which ones are the tourists because they've been excitedly wiping off the condensation with their sleeves, to get a better look at the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus. The locals just settle in behind a net curtain of steam until it's time to get off.
You can really smell the street food at nighttime. All of the food and booze aromas concentrate like a thick sauce in the cold night air, and mix in with the cigarette smoke (plus an occasional whiff of dope) and you're walking along in a fog of lights and nose aromas.
Piccadilly Circus is the kind of place where people wait for something to happen. They sit on the steps and stare at the cars, in a trance, or stand around with their buddies planning what to do next. Shall we go here? Shall we go there?
One of the most amazing things about Piccadilly Circus is the amount of light that is thrown out by the neon sign. It's almost like a second sun. And then you've got the cacophony of tourist chat and traffic and wailing sirens, and people posing for photos everywhere you turn... it's too loud to think! No hermit has ever lived here -- I can assure you of that. No one ever dies at Piccadilly Circus, because the noise would just wake them straight back up again.
I like the bright lights down Shaftesbury Avenue the best, because it reminds me of Christmas. It's all warm yellows and golds, and bright red cherry letters spelling out the prices. But you should definitely have a look down the side streets as well. Rupert Street, Brewer Street and Gerrard Street (Chinatown) are worth a look. It might seem like a slow down after walking through the bright lights of theatre land, but there's much more character in the side streets.
It's after midnight at the moment and the crowds have thinned out. The streets are blowing with cardboard coffee cups and loose sheets of yesterday's papers, which are wrapping around my legs like drainpipe trousers. This is my favourite face of London. The side-street scenes, full of darkened pubs and bolted stage doors.
Once they switch the shop lights off you become part of the scenery. People see you approaching out of the shadows and wonder whether to cross the street. They dress you up in their own fears and turn you into something that you're not. In their heads that businessman on his mobile phone suddenly becomes a drunk man muttering and chuntering to his imaginary friend, and those celebrating students become a gang of rampaging hoodlums out looking for a fight. That little old nun in a habit becomes a fifteen year old kid in a hoodie with a knife.
The spookiest scene is when you see a glowing face in a distant doorway. People stand in the shadows to tap messages into their mobile phones, and the bright white screen lights up the bottom of their chin. Everyone has a phone in London, and they can't go five minutes without checking their messages. Away from the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus there's always the glow of mobile phones to light your way home.
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