When I’d first booked a return flight from Gold Coast Airport on Friday October 12, 2012, Wednesday December 12 was meant to have been the end of the greatest geographical, physical and intellectual journey of my life, at LAX International Airport to Brisbane via Auckland. Instead, blessedly, I was setting out from Blackheath, south-east London to explore Greenwich, also south-east London, England. This was after probably the best sleep I’d had in two months, and waking up neither to cold, snoring nor a fellow backpacker noisily packing their shit before departure. No. I was blissfully alone. And perched on the precipice of beginning an oh-so-long-awaited plunge into exploration of arguably the greatest city the modern civilised world has ever produced. Blackheath, though, to be honest, felt like a little British village far removed from the enormous yet beautiful and labyrinthine metropolis London surely became – which in many ways was a positive reflection of it. But first I needed a leather jacket button mended, so I wandered out into the biting cold while wearing it and another jacket and handed it in to a dry cleaner just across the road. Swear I would not have been surprised if I’d seen Postman Pat and his black-and-white cat ambling along the street bringing letters to people’s doors. Ready, but less well-layered than I’d been in weeks of Northern Hemispherical winter, I headed to Greenwich Park. All Saints Church farewelled me into the park’s tree-less southern depths, and after walking straight up leafless treed and dull green grassed Blackheath Avenue I stopped beside the Royal Observatory. Where I would have seen London in its totality for the first time, but for the glorious yet foul weather settled over it like a cold, dirty blanket. In Greenwich proper the Cutty Sark sailing ship lay landlocked beside the Thames (pronounced “Tems” in case you didn’t know) in an undersized dry aquarium of glass and steel. Soon I got my first view of a brown, certainly frigid yet wide and fast-flowing Thames before heading through the Old Naval College and briefly checking out the National Maritime Museum. I learned there about Arctic sea-passages of old often sought but rarely and hardly found, and about the forging and defence of North Sea World War Two shipping corridors to Russia. Strangely, I saw little of the unprecedented naval empire established during the reign of Queen Victoria. Figured I’d given them enough time at this point, so headed back to Blackheath and retrieved my jacket from the dry cleaners, stopped in at Jimmy and Tim’s, then boarded the aboveground train from the nearby station, for London.
Alighting at London Bridge station on twilight provided not the dramatic entrance to outer-central London I’d expected. Until I emerged on the southern bank of the Thames and was confronted close-quarters by an immortal city weighed flat by its thousands of years of history. By its many millennia of great wars, artistry, politics, empire, architecture and romanticism. Lights astride the river twinkled gaily through air thick with cool moisture and speckled a black Thames with reflected illumination rivalling the stars in Heaven. I let forth a deep exhalation of visible carbon dioxide, and traversed the Tower Bridge. Then walked west past the city on the river’s north-side, crossed back over London Bridge and continued along the south bank past the Southwark, Millennium (footbridge), Blackfriars, Waterloo, Hungerford and Westminster bridges. After gazing upon Westminster’s governmental splendour for the first time, I got lost amid the St Thomas’ Hospital grounds before passing the Lambeth and crossing Vauxhall Bridge and catching the Tube train from Pimlico to South Kensington Station, a short walk south of Hyde Park. I’d considered ice skating outside the National History Museum, but decided not to for some reason (it must have been busy) and wandered east back through the city to London Bridge and returned to Blackheath, at about 10pm. This is where I’m puzzled by my own notes. Between leaving Greenwich and returning after a very lengthy foot-journey around the city to London Bridge Station, I wrote probably only 50 words of reminiscence. It’s pretty simple, really: London is boring. That might sound contradictory considering I’d already said my first visit to it was “oh-so-long-awaited” and had referred to it as “arguably the greatest city the modern civilised world has ever produced”. The most positive thing I can say under these changed circumstances is that I’m sure London really always is what I expected of it, but you really need a lot of time – probably no-less than a year – in which to appreciate it. Not just a week. Not less than 12 months, I’m sure, would really be required in which to properly appreciate its physical vastness, its cultural depth and its timeless atmosphere. Positives aside, it is the most impersonal city I’ve ever experienced. That’s what bored me. While walking through any city whether in the UK, North America or Australia, a certain aloofness from fellow inhabitants is granted. You won’t be calling hello to everyone, or anyone, you meet like in a good-hearted small town. But in London this was taken a further step to the extreme. As people bustled around and toward me I didn’t feel just as though they saw me blended within the broad, thick brush strokes of moving human paint spread within the streets. You get that in any city. In London, it felt as if to every inhabitant of the pavement and tarmac I and every other were instead offensive graffiti that might be cleaned with but a malicious scowl or not-so-subtle bump of the shoulder. There was an animosity, a teeming, angry jagged flow to London’s streets which didn’t sit well with me despite the physical beauty of its design. So, when I arrived back at London Bridge Station two hours before midnight, I quite with relief boarded a train and fell asleep in Blackheath’s relatively tranquil embrace by 11pm. I would sleep well in London – one of the least sleepy cities in the world – in comparison to those many others I’d visited during the preceding weeks. Possibly too well.