SEPTEMBER MORNING, LONDON
Along my morning walk it's still fairly dark. Few houses show lights. Only a rare car or truck goes past. I rarely see other walkers until I get near the Nunhead train station. There are no dogs about except for an old black hound out with his even older owner. Once the two old guys rested at the empty table outside McConnell's Pub. Often I see one of the black and white cats that share a common ancestry here in Lewisham. Unseen Robins call from backyards. Sometimes a Crow or Wren will sound off. Every diurnal animal seems to sleep late in London.
The air has turned cool, without giving up any of its humidity. The smell now is of soft, rotting leaves. Huge plane trees and numerous chestnuts shed large mounds of yellowed leaves. They can cover the sidewalk in drifts of summer memories. In a few weeks there'll be fireplace smoke in the air. In this neighborhood we burn the new-fangled smokeless coal.
Entering Nunhead station you go into a tunnel and up stairs. The tunnel wall is covered with pristine new anti-graffiti inch-square tile in garish green and dark blue. The tunnel's derelict drunk sleeps along the right-hand wall, leaving room for the feet of the morning arrivals. The platform is a long narrow raised area. No benches, no coffee shop. Just a small ticket office, sometimes open by 6:30 in the morning. The roof and support poles are plain unornamented metal. They're painted to match the color scheme of Connex railway company: white with yellow and blue trim. If I arrive early enough I see the inbound freight pass with six box cars. Then an out-going passenger train about 6:27, only two or three people in each car. There's little reverse commute in this part of London. Around 6:30 or a bit later the inbound train arrives with eight cars, nearly full already. There is silence inside. No cell phone talk. No conversation. Period. Even friends or couples sitting together are silent. People sleep, others read books or papers. Some have audio players with earphones. One woman with a folding bike stands by the door. No suitcases. These are people going to work. An occasional construction worker will carry his tools. Too early for students. Most passengers are under forty years old. They haven't moved out of London yet. Every Londoner dreams of moving to the country. You see very few old people here. They're all left. The gender ratio this early is about ten men for every woman.
Train lines in London are mostly elevated. Only a few lines between the Thames and north London were buried, largely after the reconstruction following the bombings in World War II. This line goes above the streets and houses and shops already in place when tracks were laid. The is not a tourist's view-it's roofs, storage yards full of trash or equipment or the ever-insistent buddleia bushes. One rooftop is covered with old tire rims, another holds dozens of paper sacks of gravel, another a jumble of lumber. There are few rooftop gardens and no rooftop tennis courts or pools. London from this view is an archipelago of brick islands with narrow black asphalt canals. Trees edge the parks or backyard areas, and the rails themselves. Train companies once bought more land than needed, the margins along the tracks were ignored, returning to the mixed woodland that thrives in London's interstices. Deciduous trees with dense brush and ivy vines. There are Magpies, Blue and Great Tits, Wren, Robin, Blackbird and large clumsy Wood Pigeon in the narrow forest at Nunhead Station. Certainly an unseen fox or two, as we commonly see them trot along the tracks, even in daylight. Not far away is the Brockley Nature Preserve where an especially broad railway right-of-way has left a strip about a hundred feet wide that runs a few hundred yards along the tracks. It's now a dense, mature forest. Far denser even than Nunhead Cemetery.
My morning train route: Nunhead, Peckham Rye, then Denmark Hill with its hulking hospital on the north side and the Egyptian obelisk-shaped tower on the left. The tower faces the tracks with a huge Christian cross. It is a Salvation Army training center, I'm told. Here in Denmark Hill they can treat you, body and soul. Next is Elephant & Castle, and finally into Blackfriars where the train empties. Are those English train station names or what?
Along the way we parallel the south bank of Thames, with good views of Tower Bridge. Then comes "The Gherkin," a modern pickle-shaped office tower whose glass walls show green when night lights are on inside. Finally we're on Blackfriars Bridge. There's a sweeping view east and west along the muddy tidal Thames. Just as we pass the south bank, there's the brightly-painted 12 foot wide metal emblem of the defunct Chatham and Dover Railway. Twin Victorian metal emblems still mark both sides at the top of a huge bridge pylon, all that remains from a long-gone first generation train bridge. The top of the giant pylon is now an outdoor terrace for a nearby café. The proud, complex emblem has far-outlasted both the long-forgotten railroad line. From the current rail bridge you look down on small barges along the river bank. A Greater Black-backed Gull lazily coasts above the water. Those goofy big blow-up plastic figures in front of the Tate Modern smile back vacantly. They are "Blockhead" and "Daddies Bighead." These inflated plastic sculptures were done by American Paul McCarthy. "Blockhead" is the world's largest with a height of 40 yards. He leans over towards the Thames as if to vomit. The spindly Millenium Bridge for pedestrians barely shows in front of the heavy, dense Tower Bridge behind it. The bridge is a few years older than my mailbox back on Pepys Road.
Then, beyond the bridges, an unusual London sight. I first noticed it through the trees east of Nunhead Sytation. During this morning's ride, above Southwark Cathedral, over the tops of square office buildings or grubby tar-roofed council housing blocks, even above the green trees and the rusty razor-wire fences, above it all, has been a sunrise. Many mornings in the usual gray of a London dawn, graffiti screams at you. From the short brick wall along the tracks, from every back wall, from every electrical box, every gutted, little maintenance shed, every street bridge, even the backs of the railway's signs. Not this morning, as the sun puts orange and scarlet and blue and gold and even more orange swirls into the eastern sky. Rounded cumulous turn silver, then buttery. Tiny croissant clouds are like dribbles of English lemon curd. The usually brown Thames is a fluid set of crayons. A few passengers bother to look out the window, then quickly glance down. This is too bright, too intense, too vivid for just another workday morning. Nobody from this train will walk out onto the bridge and yield up a finely wrought water-color of the momentary scene. Perhaps Wallace Stevens was right to say, "Beauty is momentary in the mind."
None of us from this train will sit in a well-positioned corner office opening onto this view. None of us will climb onto a river boat, and have the boatman row us into the sunrise. None will climb in the rigging of a Clipper Ship headed downriver past Greenwich and into the dawn. This is just another work day in London. We will walk looking down because the sidewalks are uneven and unsafe, the walls all gray. The day is ahead with all its phone calls, emails, meetings and complications and complaints. Yet, the sunlight has opened my eyes beyond their usual half-awake squint. I notice the elegant old arts & crafts masterpiece, Blackfriars Pub. Today I see the names: first up Ludgate Broadway, left onto Pilgrim Road, then a quick right on Pageantmaster Court and into Starbuck's. Back outside I look across at the Old Bailey. On my left runs Fleet Street which, after 500 years of inky history, has lost its last remaining newspaper link. The newspapers left decades ago. Now Reuters has gone, too, leaving the area to lawyers and bankers. A clear case of devolution. I must go up Limeburners Lane to my desk inside a tall dark, anonymous glass building.
But I take a final look up the street. In the foreground is Christopher Wren's short, dark-towered St. Martin's-Without-Ludgate picks up some brassy tones. The west wall of the small church was once an outer wall of London city. Ludgate was torn down in 1760. St. Martin's was a small project while he completed nearby St. Paul's Cathedral. Wren knew it would be viewed from the side, just as I see it this morning. Where the street swerves to make stands grand Saint Paul's. Its lower front is covered with huge white sheets of plastic. The stone's being cleaned. Yet indifferent nature on this otherwise ordinary day has served a banquet of colors in all flavours. The hues in the sky would challenge the people who name lipsticks. The always fine handiwork of Christopher Wren glows from within. St. Paul's dome is always worth a look. This morning the sun rays glance off, seemingly liquid. Nazi bombings did not bring down St. Paul's dome. Let's marvel that it survived all the surrounding explosions and fire. Wren re-built St. Paul's after London burned in 1666. Born from that long ago fire, today St. Paul's flames in the momentary exuberance of the sun.
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