London at night
by Lynda Archard
©: April 2002
The waning moon has taken the sun and warm nights and brought cold winds and rain across the UK. The tide was high in the River Thames at 3am, making the moored ships (which are mostly permanent restaurants) seem much taller than usual. Rubbish was strewn across all streets after what must have been a busy weekend.
It was quite eerie at the kitchen this morning. The kitchen is on an industrial site and the only sounds are of Gary swearing from the walk-in fridge because the orders are all jumbled up yet again, the thud of boxes as he loads the van and the wind howling through the offices above the walkway. The flapping of rubber ribbons dangling from the fridge door was creepy enough but then a stronger wind blew up and a tall stack of plastic bread containers on wheels suddenly rolled across the empty forecourt.
Road works had closed one of the roads that we usually travel down to Liverpool Street and meant taking another detour this week. I’m not sure which road it was (around the corner from Bank Station) but it was busy after the number 21 bus dropped off about ten people heading for work at 5am. They joined a group of tourists complete with rucksacks and cameras in hand.
Since the police reinstated their stop and search policy a month or so ago things have reverted back to the mid eighties when I worked in a petrol station. I used to see the police stop about 15 cars each week on my afternoon shift at apparent random and check for road tax and other documents. What always stood out to me, as a white-born UK resident was the fact all policemen were white and everyone pulled over were young black men and driving expensive cars such as BMW’s. This always seemed unfair to me and I have seen the same again at least five times in the last month. I wonder what the reason is?
Speaking of Police, here in the UK we have a method of slowing traffic down by inserting humps in roads used as shortcuts (known as rat runs) called sleeping policemen. A Police car parked at the Embankment contained two policemen; one eating breakfast and the driver was fast asleep with his head stretched back and his mouth wide open. Could this be the new definition of a sleeping policeman?
The next sight was at traffic lights under Bow flyover in London’s East End. We were to the right of a car and a van at the red lights opposite a roundabout. The lights opposite are clearly for traffic coming from the right and changed to green, ours were still red and do not have a filter arrow to indicate that you can now turn left but both the car and van drove off anyway. It is not the first time that drivers have been confused by this stupid system; we see it happen nearly every day. In fact we see cars, vans and lorries drive through red lights regularly every night. Most are in places were the lights are clearly not needed and cause chaos during the day without any reason or just because there are no police in the area at the time. One set of lights on the A40 has a camera and drivers regularly run the red light and never get flashed. Perhaps it is time some cameras had a service!
Daylight revealed black clouds that brought the rain back.
A chat on the radio gave the answer to this important question – If a skunk sprays you, how do you get rid of the smell? The answer sent in by a reader called Peter – Bath and wash your clothes in tomato juice!
Each night we debate a subject usually instigated by a site sound or something on the radio. Tonight Gary recognised a song by Phil Collins from the intro, which sounds like the same intro to 90% of his songs to me. I asked him how and it lead to a discussion of why the evening drive-time radio stations always play songs that I could easily fall asleep to. I suggested this could be dangerous to someone who is already tired from a long working day. Gary’s conclusion was that men want to get home after work and are tense or angry with other drivers pushing in or behaving erratic on the road because they don’t actually finish work until they walk through their front doors. My point of view is something that he finds difficult to comprehend; when I finish work my day is done and I can take my time. For me it is time to slow down, window shop, read the newspaper while waiting for a bus or anything that does not need to be done in a hurry. Stopping on a bridge to take pictures of the river is good at this time. Sitting in a traffic jam should not be stressful unless you are in a hurry. People should not be in a hurry on their way home. So my conclusion is that the working day should finish when we do our last delivery or the office worker puts their coat on and can relax and take as long as the traffic allows getting home. Is that just a girl thing?
I was surprised anyone could be walking the streets in the strong wind but we saw 1 lady of the night in Kings Cross, wearing a full-length fur coat, and 1 walking with a man wearing shorts and a large hat. There were 2 in Shoreditch wearing trousers and long heavy coats. All had their coats undone, which flapped in the wind like a bad Dracula movie.
We got to the one-way system at Greenwich just as a large group of party revellers spread in all directions on their way home. Some wore hats while others sat at the bus stop hoping the night bus would soon arrive. The old naval college and the seaman’s hospital (only known locally as the VD clinic) has recently become part of Greenwich University and the revellers could have come from there. One young man stood in the centre of the road island with his thumb stuck out. He looked in his early twenties and rich enough to buy a chauffer driven limousine of his own, assuming mummy and daddy give him a monthly allowance that most of us need to work a year for. Gary and I both laughed as we drove passed and his poor little drunken face looked so disapproving that no one had stopped for him. I expected him to stamp his feet in a tantrum. It was starting to rain so I assume he toddled back to the bus stop with his fellow playmates.
Signs showed that parts of central London will be closed again on Wednesday 1st of May. Probably for the same demonstrations as last year in which a peaceful daytime crowd became violent and angry after being hemmed into Oxford Street and kept there all night by the City Police. Those lovely policemen really know how to keep peace and order don’t they?
Only a few miles further and we saw the first driver who ignored a road sign – a police car turned right into a road that clearly showed a no right turn mark. He did not have his lights flashing nor did he look in a hurry.
As we left the kitchens and headed for the city the clouds lit up with lasers and spotlights. It wasn’t clear where they came from but it looked pretty.
Our first delivery was to the same petrol garage as every night, met by the same two men who ignore everyone and gets paid to be rude. Gary said good morning and one sat at the till munching a burger while the other swept the floor in complete silence. Gary says it is the last time that he will say anything to either of them.
It rained all night and there were still girls walking the streets. No signs of tourists tonight though. We saw two in Kings Cross and two in Shoreditch, one running to a car that pulled up at the roadside and the other stared at us as we drove by with her hands on her hips holding her coat open.
The men from the garage were polite today and actually said good morning to Gary. Well done.
There are lights in and outside of buildings everywhere. I would love to know how much electricity is used just through the night. The bill must be staggeringly high. A colourful and pretty lit up building made a change from the lit buildings and yellowish streetlights. Well done to those who thought of doing something different.
The morning had started with some apprehension as the radio news forecaster told us that more than 10,000 people were expected in London for the Anti-capitalism march today. Up to 400 of those are expected to be violent troublemakers. We saw three youths looking suspicious close to Trafalgar Square around 5am. They could have been drug dealing as one passed a small white packet to another as we drove passed. Some shopkeepers were not taking chances and had boarded up shop windows leaving only the doors exposed. The usual fruit and vegetable stall outside the Embankment Station was missing and large wooden boards covered the statue of Sir Winston Churchill after the vandalism of a past demonstration. The usual road works should also act as a deterrent to those arriving by car. There are lots of police cars out and about today. All leave for the City Police has been cancelled.
The bread man at Liverpool Street had parked his van right in the middle of the road today in the part that only allows one vehicle to pass through. It was not long before he had to move to let an angry driver through. He always wears shorts and a T-shirt even though the morning air is quite cold today. He also runs everywhere and the rushing is probably why he dropped the bread I told you about last Monday.
We only saw one tonight. She was getting out of a car with a cigarette hanging from her mouth and adjusting her clothes with her hands. It was only today that I noticed the street that the girls advertise themselves in is called Commercial St.
One young white girl sat close by at a bus shelter and was crying. An older black man leaned over her and seemed to be shouting in her face. The girl looked respectable but could easily have been unwilling to work for him. I’ll let you know if I see her again.
London was still quite busy at 2.30am after the demonstration yesterday. Some people on TV said they wanted to bring the cars and lorries to a halt and bring calm to the city. Well at least there were only a few arrests instead of the 400 as predicted. While the dustcarts rid the streets of filth left by the clean city lovers the protective boards were being torn from shop windows. Not too far away from the Trafalgar Square area it was like daytime with people everywhere. I did not see any problems or vandalism on our travels.
The usual road works went on in Blackwall Tunnel.
Close by Euston we followed a very slow driving black taxi. A customer slept in the back and there was no traffic in front of the taxi. This can only mean one thing – the poor man will get a much bigger bill than he should have because the taxi meter, unlike minicabs, clock up money per second. It was up to £5.80 when we were behind him.
After stopping for petrol we ended up in the slow moving traffic outside the empty Greenwich District Hospital at 6.30am.
One girl walked arm in arm with a punter. As I sat in a warm van wearing a quilted jacket, scarf, and fingerless gloves, she wore a short skirt slightly longer than a wide belt. Her legs were bare and if the skirt was 1cm shorter I could have told you if she had worn knickers!
At 2.30am an expensive red car overtook us in the Old Kent Road. A large shaggy dog had his head through the open window and gasped for air. Gary noticed the woman had left her petrol cap open and we assumed she was in a hurry to get somewhere.
By 3am the birds were singing loudly in the cemetery close to the kitchen. Half an hour later there were two eating in the road in the docklands. We were lucky enough to spot an owl in Oxley woods as we drove down Shooters Hill, South East London, into Welling, Kent. It was eating something and flew up onto a branch as we disturbed it. I thought it was a very large pigeon until Gary asked if I had seen the owl. We had a similar conversation in Devon a few summers ago when I thought bats were small birds that were up very late. Perhaps I should invest in some night glasses to see all the things I have missed at night.
On the way through Blackwall Tunnel one lane was coned off again. I don’t ever recall seeing anyone working inside the Tunnel in the past few weeks or any other time. Perhaps they could wait until workers arrive before disrupting traffic in future?
Back in the city, close to Shoreditch there was a group of students sitting on the pavement. One girl was curled up asleep while the others sat chatting. There are a couple of nightclubs in the area and this is a usual sight between 3am and 4am. I am surprised to see young men in shorts again. It is cold and dark but still they walk around the city with bare legs. Gary says I am more reptilian than human because I still wear gloves until summer and when it is hot next to nothing during the day and back to long trousers and jumpers at night. After lying in hot sun, about 28c or 80f, all day while on holiday I shiver at night without a jumper or cardigan on. Isn’t this normal?
We crossed Tower Bridge today on yet another change of route and decided that in the days before our city buildings became tall the Tower of London must have been an awesome sight. The picture below was taken at traffic lights and I promise to come up one day and walk around to take some better ones for you.
Outside a shop at London Bridge there were two glass torsos on the pavement. I couldn’t get a picture at the traffic lights because they were hidden behind a pillar by then. It looked as if water was underneath them so they could have even been ice sculptures.
The only one out tonight was standing on the outskirts of London at Deptford.
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© Lynda Archard