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London Revisited 2000


by Kenneth Lyen

During my trip to London in August 2000, I jotted down a few notes and impressions of my favourite city.

London never changes. The landmarks stubbornly silhouette the skyline for decades and perhaps centuries. I could walk down Oxford Street or Knightsbridge a couple of decades later and still expect to see Selfridges and Harrods. Yes, it's been that long since I was last in London.

But this time was different. I now carry a different baggage. I have family, I have a few strands of white hair, and I have a deeper sediment of experience. My myopia has decreased, and my view of London is less self-centered, less juvenile.

When I was a young undergraduate student, London was an exciting metropolis, full of wonderful distractions, full of wonder for a provincial Singaporean like myself.

Let me date myself. This is easily done by saying that I could travel on the London Underground for a florin. For those of you born this side of the Spice Girls, a florin was a historical British silver or alloy two shilling coin of the 19th to the 20th century. Now, the cheapest ticket on the Underground is £1.40. I remember that a plate of Char Ngarp Fan (char siu and roast duck rice) used to cost ten shillings (= 50 p), but now costs ten times more, at £5.50. That really dates me! The television is still showing "University Challenge", "This is Your Life", "Coronation Street", more than two decades down the road. The actors are changed, but the format is the same.

When I walk along the Streets of London, I hear a cacophony of languages. In fact, English is hardly spoken here. I look at the people. A large percentage are middle eastern, oriental, Indian subcontinent, and Mediterranean. Indeed when you look at the restaurants, they serve anything but British. Two decades ago, I might have been just an isolated foreigner. (The British would patronize me, "You speak awfully good English for a foreigner.")

I enjoy reading some of the signs in London. One sign displayed in a shop window amused me no end, for it said "English spoken here." Just outside Bayswater Underground Station is a sign which says, "Robbers Beware. There are plain-clothed policemen around." I like some of the shop names, such as "Head Quarters" which is a barber shop, or "Curry in a Hurry" and I hasten to interject that one hopes that it does not refer to a hurried visit to the convenience after eating the curry.

Two decades ago, London was a first world country, and Singapore was classified as an emerging nation, a euphemistic term for third world country. London had everything. Underground railway, league football, a first class health service. Singapore had none of these. Now, Singapore has them all. And more. We can answer our handphones in our MRT. In London, the handphone is moribund underground. We in Singapore are nearly fully computerised. Not so in London. We gloat over our efficient first-ranked airport. London Heathrow Airport is ranked far below. Our roads are rarely jammed, whereas it took me nearly an hour to negotiate Shaftesbury Avenue and Trafalgar Square (I try to disguise another arrogant gloat).

I love London. Piccadilly Circus with its ever present neon flashing Coca Cola sign, the Natural History Museum with its 85 foot long Diplodocus skeleton to greet you, Queensway with its rash of restaurants, and knick-knack boutiques. I like the theatres, the bookshops, the freedom. I didn't realise how badly I needed to go to London to get that whiff of fresh freedom air. I hate London. I hate the early darkness, the cold that sears your ears, the need to carry an umbrella for fear of being drenched in its perpetual light shower. I hate the Underground. The sooty smell, the din, the suffocating feel of bodies crowding you, the missing of trains. I hate the sight of the homeless, decaying as they slumber along the unforgiving pavements. I hate the loneliness that you can only feel in a city of 12 million, solitary in your cramp damp apartment.

Sitting alone I indulged in some light reading. It was Michael Crichton's latest book "Timeline", a slight but entertaining book, now made into a not-so-good movie. You are transported to a parallel world back into 14th century feudal France. Looking out for quotable quotes, I spotted one not-so-original phrase that somehow became etched into my mind: "The future lies in the past." I reflected on it.

The quality of service has not changed. My wife waited a whole day for delivery of a telephone, which never arrived. On enquiry, she discovered that we were not listed for any telephone delivery at all. The next morning, one telephone got delivered. In the afternoon, a man came to deliver another telephone. We politely informed him that the telephone had already come, so he went away. Several days later we received a bill for two telephones. Good old British service has not changed!

I was staying behind Whiteley's. This was a magnificent department store in Queensway, noted for its stately Doric columns. The bronze statues in front depict four maidens, three scantily clad and barefooted, but the fourth wearing winter clothes and ice-skating. How wonderfully Victorian. This store retains its facade, but the interior has changed utterly. There is now a myriad of little shops, ranging from a Marks and Spencer's supermarket, to Tower Records. Upstairs there is a Chinese Restaurant, a MacDonald's, an Italian Restaurant, and a coffee place. To me that symbolises London. The exterior is largely unchanged. But the people are somehow different, they are more cosmopolitan, they are more hardworking.

Good grief, am I contradicting myself? Yes, damn it. London has changed!

August 2000