Scarlet double decker buses whizzed past black cabs as hoards of people shuffled shoulder to shoulder down the pavements. At Piccadilly Circus, throngs of people converged at Eros as the iconic billboards flashed in the distance. Weaving my way through the early evening crowd I moved towards my rendezvous on Shaftsbury Avenue reaching the slightly shocking conclusion that historical London was not so different from modern New York. As Times Square throbs at the heart of NYC, the roads stretching out from Piccadilly pulse with energy and you smell the sweet scent of promise. Manic and chaotic, London and New York are mired in an endless race; Londoners and New Yorkers live life at breakneck speed lest they be left behind and swallowed up by the sea of people streaming down the avenue.
London owes something to New York then, I decided; or likely the other way round given that the history of the English capital stretches all the way back to the second century and its Londinium origins. And picturing the early days of this vast metropolis is somewhat easier than picturing an uninhabited Manhattan island. London lives and breathes history as its very streets catapult you back in time, the iconic London streetlamps casting their amber glow over the Victorian and Georgian buildings as in times gone by. Enter an old pub and witness the backdrop to a million stories: if only walls could talk. History suits London and it dons its years with pride, like a jaunty bowler hat perched on its head. It revels in its history, favouring old-style red telephone and pillar boxes long replaced by soulless glass structures elsewhere in the country; the double-decker buses recognisable the world over for their blood-red coat haven’t changed in a century. The neon crackle of Piccadilly Circus is thus somewhat more incongruous in the midst of ancient London than Times Square in adolescent NYC, but London is a city of contrasts. And while Sepia images of Trafalgar Square and Westminster may resonate more with the historical vein of the city, flashing Piccadilly and its scarlet landmarks demonstrate a certain brashness absent from other cities, particularly my current abode.
Jack Kerouac proclaimed that “Paris is a woman but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub”, and for me, this short quotation sums up many of the feelings that that I struggled to name while roaming the streets of London. Paris and London should be more similar; they are both historical cities oozing with culture, attracting tourists in their droves every year. And yet London felt drastically different, with a spirit more reminiscent of New York. Paris is essentially a tranquil capital city, which is bizarre given its lack of green spaces and reputation for rudeness. Kerouac’s statement explains away the paradox however: Paris is a woman!
It makes perfect sense once you think about it. A man could never get away with covering himself in ostentatious gold but on a woman it’s breathtakingly elegant; the simple London facades are decidedly more masculine than the fancy wrought-iron balconies decorating the front of many a Parisian apartment; and while a red London bus hurtling down the Strand conjures up images of sturdy football players bombing down the left wing at Wembley, such a sight would be all wrong along Paris’ elegant tree-lined boulevards. Come to think of it, a yellow New York cab wouldn’t be quite right either. NYC is male too – of course.
Save for the jam-packed Champs Elysées and Galeries Lafayette department store (enter at your peril), Paris is free of the aggressive vibe generated by the masses of people crowding the thoroughfares of London and NYC. Paris favours brasseries over pubs; wine over beer; black over red. London tube stations are awash with colour, while Paris metro stops (save a few exceptions) often resemble hospitals with their clinical white tiles. Paris values good taste and sophistication, while London has a down to earth and jubilant core.
So do London and Paris have anything in common? Perhaps only the fact that the millions of out-of-towners setting up home there every year make it a little harder to pinpoint the characteristics of a Londoner or Parisian. In such cosmopolitan cities as London, Paris, New York and beyond, many people are in transition meaning that the identity of the city owes as much to the bricks and mortar of the city itself as to the people.
After five days in London and many hours of contemplation, I came up with the above, much of which amounts to a superficial overview of inevitably complex and multi-faceted places. Cities are man-made – their lifeblood is humanity, and in that context, Kerouac’s conclusion that cities are people is really not so strange. And though we may try to “figure out” people, we rarely succeed, in fact we usually end up accepting them as they are, aware that a person – or a city of more than 8 million people – will always have something up their sleeve.