Photos by Luke OverinEarlier this month, I spent a day trying to live like a tourist in London, where I live. Having grown weary of the tacky odyssey of fro-yo stalls, painted buses, and wax torture victims that I found on the city's South Bank, I decided to go in search of the nightlife across the river.Outside London Bridge station—the checkpoint before Central London turns into Bermondsey and every pub toilet door has "Lions Shit on West Ham Scum" etched into it—I wondered how most tourists would decide to make the journey north.
Of all the modes of transportation available in London, the pedibus is surely the most lamentably stupid. Once a "what the fuck is that?" kind of sighting, these treacherous steampunk contraptions have become commonplace in the city's more tourist-heavy zones. Essentially, they're an excuse for high-visibility drunkenness. But this group seemed slightly different from the usual customer base: a group of well-to-do-looking Middle Eastern ladies who presumably made the decision to hire the pedibus without even being drunk.I wondered why they were doing it. The pedibus doesn't look particularly fun or safe, and there have to be about 50 more cost-effective methods of seeing the sights of London, right? I mean, surely an open-top bus must be cheaper than hiring one of these?
Wrong. The first time I tried to get myself a single pass I was told it'd set me back $45 (seriously). The second time, the driver told me and my photographer, Luke Overin, that we needed to pay $50 each, seemingly unaware how ridiculous that sounded given that a seven-day bus pass costs about half that.I explained that even a black cab would be cheaper, that you'd probably get more bang for your buck from a horse-drawn carriage. But all he gave me was his sternest "I don't make the rules here, Sonny Jim, and why the fuck do you want to get on anyway?" look, knowing that the bus was already loaded up with a few hundred dollars' worth of tourists. I started to wonder if the guys driving these buses were ex-London transport workers gone rogue, embracing the free market to its most ludicrous extent. Perhaps I'd been too harsh on the pedibus after all.
We crossed the bridge on foot, and by this point we were pretty tired and ready for a drink. Pubs are a huge part of London's past, present, and future. They are as much a part of the collective perception of the city as Beefeaters, East End gangsters, or any of those other clichés that permeate London and are yet to be consigned to history.But while most of us have our local spots—places we've elected to be constants in our lives—tourists don't have the luxury of experience, and so they often find themselves in the worst pubs imaginable: the ones on main roads, the ones with lunchtime deals, the ones where you'll find massive Peroni glasses, hunter's chicken, bi-hourly toilet inspections, and LCD screens showing Sky News with dodgy subtitles on.
I wasn't ready to go full tourist, though. For example, I have never, ever seen a man holding a sign for a pub before. Surely any pub that needs to hire a living human to hold a sign pointing at it is a no-go whatever the language.
So instead of following that guy's sign, we found ourselves at Ye Olde London on Ludgate Hill. The name might make it seem like a visual gag from The Simpsons, but Ye Olde London is definitely a pub, definitely in London, andwhile I can't find any exact dates of how long it's been around for, there is a review of the place from a woman who claimed to have met her husband there in 1974. Which in modern London terms—with its tequila-sipping bars and Clapton microbreweries—is practically prehistoric.
Sitting down with a pair of Ye Olde beers, we admired the works on the wall. Old visions of London, gilded in gold leaf and glued to the walls, provided a visual context for strayed city boys and bored backpackers who've wandered into a place like this, people who are surely only ever here to kill time.But while it's tempting to think that all that London grandiosity has been lost as you sit looking at the skewed, badly lit vision of London in the paintings, the gloomy London of Wordsworth—as you sip your foot-tall pints and listen to that Passenger tune on every pub's official playlist—you'd be wrong. It's still a great city with more drinking holes, clubs, museums, galleries, lunatics, and luminaries than any other city in Europe.
As night descended on the city, the avenues seemed to open up, and the hot-dog vendors, minicab drivers, bouncers, and professional sleazebags came out of their vampiric slumber and flocked onto the city streets.I stepped off the bus at Trafalgar Square, and I was instantly reminded of some of the great things that London has to offer. Looming overhead were the huge stone pillars of the National Gallery, which has stood on the same spot for nearly 200 years, housing Turners and Titians and Cezannes and Seurats. Most major cities can boast similar collections, but how many of them are free and open until 9 PM on a Friday night?
So close to this old-world glory sits another version of London. Wading through the falling glitz of the West End, it's not hard to see the indelible appeal of London's nightlife. Unlike other European cities, where the culture seems to revolve around food—and getting drunk and disgracing yourself is merely something that happens incidentally—London's nocturnal economy is fundamentally based on shame. The West End is purposefully built for vice, and nothing seems to have changed that.
In fact, there is an argument that despite the rows of fancy ham-and-cheeseries that pepper the main roads, the area is nearly impossible to gentrify. A few shops won't do it, and the area is still full of weird, wonderful, and quite possibly dangerous establishments that just don't seem to disappear. Probably because it will always be a transient, messy part of the world where few actually want to live.
Of all these places that simply won't shift, the Aberdeen Angus Steak Houses are perhaps among the most impressively resilient. These soulless venues for day-tripper dates and tourist lunches seem to have entered London folklore. They're huge, and they're in arguably some of the best retail spots London has to offer, yet there never seems to be anyone in them. Nor will you meet anyone who's ever actually been to one.My own father once said he thought they must be fronts for some kind of illegal operation. "Who keeps Aberdeen Angus Steak Houses going?" is surely one of London's greatest mysteries, the eatery equivalent to all that Ripper folklore.
But on this Friday evening, we had to wait in line to get a table—the MEATliquor experience coming to what is surely one of London's least fashionable dining destinations. Still, this gave us some time to stare through the window, like Victorian orphans yearning for the crumbs off their master's table.This guy with the England tattoos probably wasn't gonna give us any of his onion rings, but he did plant the seed in my mind that perhaps places like the Aberdeen Angus weren't just for tourists per se, but for other British people from different parts of the country who'd come for a short break in the Big Smoke—whose vision of the place was stuck in a mid-70s safe space of prawn cocktails, napkins in glasses, and bottomless refills, rather than picklebacks and jam-jar Negronis.
I'm not gonna lie—while we were still following our tourist mantra of "Big, Bright, and Near," I made a point of ensuring that a visit to an Angus Steak House was on the itinerary. I've always been fascinated by these places; they seem to come from a whole different era. I imagined dusty black and red carpets, eye-wateringly clean toilets with massive yellow urinal cakes, camp waiters, old thespians soaking up the booze after a matinee performance of The Mousetrap, Americans asking the way to Bucking-HAM Palace—perhaps even intelligence agents sliding briefcases across to each other. All the clichés of a place where nobody plans to go.But in actuality, the Aberdeen Angus wasn't too different from any of the glut of burger restaurants quickly taking over the city. It looked like it'd maybe had a revamp recently, but with all the postmodern chrome and neon it could have been any other slider-and-cocktail-type joint in London.
What was the food like? Well, it wasn't terrible, it wasn't great. The menu seemed to have good attention to detail, a little too much variety (not exactly sure who goes to a Steak House to have a Thai curry), a series of boasts about how good the quality of their meat is, and some more bragging about how much training the chefs have had. In the end, the steaks were bland, stringy, and slightly metallic; the sides were stodgy; and the whole thing just seemed a bit supermarkety. As I assumed, the place felt as if it were stuck in the 70s.
Still, I had to hand it to Aberdeen Angus. There was a pervading sense of glitz, pizzazz, and just the right level of seediness about the place. It seemed to come from a part of London's history and, judging by this night, remains a part of its contemporary culture, offering people a kind of experienc rather than just an "in-out, tap your card, fuck off" 45 minutes like somewhere like the aforementioned Giraffe on South Bank would.
Walking out with what felt like a parasitic twin in my stomach, I set off to sample some of the city's nightlife, and I was astounded at the sheer number of people traipsing through the adjacent Leicester Square. For most people who live in the city, Leicester Square is a place to avoid—a place of M&M's superstores and grim casinos where Japanese businessmen and weekend wide boys try to bet their watches on virtual roulette tables.But for London's visitors, Leicester Square is a kind of inner-city Disneyland—the closest thing London has to being a city that never sleeps. And as I walked through the throng of tourists, seemingly so excited by the place so many of us full-timers deride, I began to imagine the rest of the city's high street shops shutting up about this time and becoming suburban wastelands. Leicester Square, however—for all its inherent tackiness—is defiantly "central," alive, and metropolitan, something that can often seem like a rarity in this sprawling collection of backwaters and thoroughfares.
But it wasn't just tourists who'd come out to play: The city had come alive with pissheads. Street-beer snatch squads were huddling up in the doorways and cranny holes of the vicinity, sheltering from Westminster Council's draconian drinking policies. They were making the most of the death throes of summer, topping themselves up before heading to Yates's or Bar Rhumba or Moonlighting, or any other mirror-walled Soho booze pit you can name.They made the tourists seem oddly childlike in comparison, creating a strong, visible juxtaposition between those whose idea of fun is going to the Häagen-Dazs store and those whose idea of fun is doing shots of Wray & Nephew from the bottle cap and throwing kebabs at a pink stretch Hummer. Almost all of these people were Brits.
The tourists, meanwhile, seemed to carry themselves in a state of blissful innocence, happily buying up more Union Jack souvenirs and avoiding the growing lines at the horrific bars and clubs on the square's perimeter. It is, of course, easy to bemoan people buying up horrific, jingoistic shit. But as my day went on, I saw something a bit more romantic in it. It's taking a small piece of an identity, physicalizing it, trying to remember it through something tangible. And however misguided this impression of London is, it is at least an identity.
However, there is no fucking excuse for this shit. None whatsoever. Of all the hateful symbols of Boris's London, the "Keep Calm" meme flies higher than any other, and will surely join the Second Boer War and A Question of Sport in a future TV retrospective of Britain's greatest atrocities.
We left the strange cultural conflict zone of Leicester Square behind us and headed north for a dose of some real London depravity: to Soho, where we assumed our sort would be more readily accepted. After navigating the winding streets lined with late-night bakeries and hen-night-friendly gay bars, we met these guys, the most archetypally West End duo you could ever imagine. White puffer jackets, distressed jeans, expensive ride—it's a look that never really goes away in this part of town.These guys are part of a tradition. The area has long been a place where the rich came to get down and dirty; it dates back to the 1700s as a zone of debauchery. When the aristocrats moved up to Mayfair the place became the Soho of Thomas De Quincey: immigrant communities, opium dens, and ladies of the night scraping a living through nefarious means.
Amazingly, not much has changed. Of course, the area is now loaded with all the coffee shops, edit studios, boutique trainer shops, and Venetian tapas joints you'd expect, but the thing that's given Soho a name that travels way beyond any of its neighbors is still there, albeit in a slightly reduced, sanitized form.There are still lots of strange little boozers, Italian restaurants, and pissed, eccentric residents in Soho. Parts of it are still very seedy, if not quite dangerous, and despite (or perhaps because of) its proximity to the center of town, it's done a pretty good job in avoiding the tweeification of London. It's a nice piece of dark continuity in a city where it often feels like the lights are too bright.
But in a strange way, the seedy side of Soho has become as much of a tourist draw as Ripley's Believe It or Not is just up the road. People from more conservative places, like Oman or Ohio, come here to see late-European seedinees in all its faded glory. And while it's not quite Amsterdam's red-light district, it is a bit like a massive exploded Madame Tussauds with dildos.
Our day as tourists in London was coming to an end, and as we made our way back towards the subway, I began to notice what seemed to have defined everything we did that day: contradiction, but also collusion. The pallid figures in the all-night arcades stood just walls apart from Channel 4 commissioners conducting affairs in Italian eateries next door. The hapless tourists in awe of this old metropolis watching the same body-popping crews as hardened pickpockets.As Londoners, I guess we come to expect this kind of cheek-by-jowel existence and take it for granted. It's the only city we know. But looking at it in the shoes of a tourist, you come to realize that it is perhaps the most fascinating thing modern London has going for it—more so than any of the actual attractions even—is a sense of chaos, of intrigue, of dirt, of really being in a city rather than a town with a transport system.London, is a great metropolis—a holiday in darkness—and that is surely why people come here.
But playing into that sits an enormous history. I'd become tired of the retro stuff, hoping to see a London that was more modern, dynamic and really offering something different—in the way that somewhere like Shanghai does—but there is something undeniably, morbidly fascinating about London, both past and present. And you know what? I think I'm OK with that. Maybe more bad things have happened in London than great things, maybe there are more murder map pins than blue plaques. But all of that adds to an astonishing depth of character to a city that for all it's enterprising efforts can't quite be tamed, or even understood.And if you happen to be coming here from some distant part of the world, where things are simpler and people more straightforward, then this weird labyrinth of pomp, chaos, and tragedy must seem like quite a place.
It's hard for me to say whether I enjoyed my time as a tourist in London, and what I'd think of the city with fresh eyes. I am from this city, and my perception of it will never quite be fair. I could've just have easily wondered into the Tate Modern as the Clink Museum, or the Glass House Stores rather than the Ye Olde London, and the real story here is that London can really be whatever you make it.No doubt there are people who are trying to suck the life out of this place, to turn it into a giant food court with homeless spikes and trains ripping through its center, blasting the people who truly serve London back into the provinces. But you know what? Essentially, they're going to fail. Because London is too big, too chaotic, too strange, and too beautiful to ever become that. And for every plastic tourist experience you can have in the city, there's something you'd never expect.I wanted to look at London as an outsider. In doing so, I realized that, even as an insider, I'll never truly come to grips with the place. And that's why the tourists come.Follow Clive Martin on Twitter.