When I first glimpsed London, approximately at the time of David Bowie’s emergence, it was magical. The Kings Road was lined with boutiques blasting wonderful English pop music and selling fanciful clothing of the sort wonderful English pop musicians wore with such panache on the world’s premiere stages. Kensington Church Street was home to a market in which a zillion designers offered their own fanciful creations in tiny stalls, and kids who’d devoted their lives to looking more like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, for instance, than Marilyn Monroe and James Dean had themselves ever dared, posed implacably. The male mannequins in department store windows had preposterously long eyelashes and Catherine Deneuve’s features; their suits were beautifully tailored. Thanks to the outrageous platform footwear that was so fashionable at the time, everyone was seven feel tall. No wonder everyone felt giddy.
That London no longer exists. Very little notable music comes out of it anymore, and the Kings Road is lined with posh chain stores selling boring clothing at ludicrous prices. The rampant theatricality that made the city so glorious for people-watching is long, long gone; hip hop-inspired slobbishness is now the sartorial norm. Indeed, when I think of 21st century London, in two of whose corners I have resided for six of the past 10 years, the words that come to mind are expensive, overcrowded, ugly, dreary, expensive, and expensive. Living in London is sort of like living at an airport, in the sense that everything is approximately twice the price you’d expect to pay in the real world.
The public transport(ation) system is a disaster. It’s said that when European manufacturers test trains they’ve made for sale to the UK, they do so on tracks they’ve deliberately degraded to simulate UK conditions. Those who travel by Tube (that is, subway) quickly become accustomed to pre-recorded announcements expressing London Transport’s regret about your train having been delayed. And when your train finally does arrive, rest assured that it will either be clogged with irate-looking persons in hideous scuffed loafers, or deserted except for a pair or trio of feral-looking teenagers in hooded sweatshirts who will stab you if you fail to endorse the idea of their borrowing your mobile phone, iPad, or wallet on a permanent basis. London abounds with bored, frustrated, poorly educated “youf” with nothing to lose.
The British think Americans can’t do irony? Well, the Brits can’t do English grammar. On your visit to London, you are guaranteed to see billboards so egregiously punctuated as to defy divination. And don’t expect to hear any foreign place names pronounced properly; the locals’ deliberately mispronouncing Los Angeles (Los Angel-eez), for instance, or Tenerife (Tenor Reef) is their way of conveying that deep in the heart of every Englishman, The Empire endures.
On a weekend night, central London becomes the scene of wanton sluttishness on a grand scale, as it becomes clogged with young women who’ve spent six hours achieving their look of brazen cheapness tottering off the trains and buses looking to get legless on alcopops and then meet Mr. Right, who, for his own part, may have been persuaded to put on his cleanest jeans. Of course, the phenomenon isn’t unique to central London; you’ll see it as far away as Richmond, in the southwest corner of the city — and, indeed, in the outback. A year ago, I stayed overnight in a little village in Somerset after attending a pal’s wedding. When I ventured down to the local supermarket for some fruit, what to my wondering eyes should appear but doppelgangers of the brazen streetwalkers one used to see on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles, in thigh-high stiletto-heeled boots, eyelashes as lavish as those on the male department store mannequins of the ’70s, and skirts a millimeter or two away from indecent exposure.
Turned out they were just the local beauties, dressed for a Saturday night down the pub.