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I Spent a Day Pretending to Be a Tourist in London

I wanted to see what it's like to be a stranger in my own city.

by Clive Martin, Photos: Luke Overin
13 October 2014, 1:00pm

Nobody was born a tourist. It's an accidental, temporary state of being, something that happens to normal people in foreign cities. Yet, for some reason, it's totally fine to rip them to pieces. We mock them, we malign them, we huff at them on the Piccadilly Line, we kick their massive fucking holdalls and we give them the wrong change. Even OG cultural theorist and equality firebrand Fran Lebowitz recently said she thinks tourists should just "stay home". But the thing is, we've all been one at some point in our lives.

No matter how worldly you think you are, how thorough your research has been, how well you think you've avoided the American Express ambush spots, some native has spotted your lost, sitting-duck ass ambling around with a shit map and a burnt neck. Sometimes it's possible to notice ourselves becoming tourists, having out-of-body experiences as our wallets are hugger-mugged on trams and we find ourselves asking, in broken Spanish, if they're showing the Manchester derby at this tapas restaurant. Yet, despite this common bond between us, we still treat the people who come to visit this country with a kind of gleeful inhumanity, determined to send them home with tales similar to the ones we have about rude Parisian waiters and crazy NYC taxi drivers.

But what is it like to live like a newcomer in a city you know as well as your own PIN number? To forget everything you learned about your hometown and instead place total trust in travel pamphlets that haven't changed since the London Eye was finished?

Intrigued to see what my city looks like to those who've just arrived, and perhaps in search of a lost sense of wonder, I spent a day searching for the tourist London, the one the rest of the world discovered via US sitcoms and Richard Curtis films rather than teenage night bus journeys. As a London native, it's a world I've only ever seen from the outside looking in. But it was time to wade into it and hope no German exchange students started crying in the process.

It was only right that we started our day where so many tourists start theirs: Victoria rail, tube and bus station. Getting into character, VICE photographer Luke Overin and I imagined ourselves in the frayed moccasins of a pair of young, foreign lads who'd just bowled off the Gatwick Express, eager to make the most of a short break to the city of William Blake, Nell Gwyn, plague pits, Danny Baker and Newham Generals.

Arriving at the shiny-floored purgatory that is the station's main concourse, the first thing I noticed were an abundance of Union Jacks and a massive advert for the Harry Potter books, two Great British icons in varying degrees of health. The Union Jack is just about clinging on for life after 1.6 million people actively voted to leave it behind, while Harry Potter, amazingly, is still A Thing. It was a strange vision of London to be welcomed into; I half expected Stephen Fry to be reading the platform announcements in an attempt to make The Catford loop line sound a lot more magical than the miserable commuter wagon it is. 

Gathered together in this huge, celestial shed that smelt of burnt cheese were a small tribe of daytrippers, homecomers, jet-setters and potential street robbery victims. Their holdalls bulged at the seams, threatening to spill out their Esperanto cargo of unwashed pants, wet wipes and David Nicholls novels all over the station. Today, these were my people.

Starting our journey into the heart of the British tourism industry, AKA London, we went looking for divine guidance from TfL. Luckily, Victoria station is totally geared towards people who have no fucking idea what they're doing, and soon we were making our way to Westminster, the bedrock of two British institutions: the Houses Of Parliament and the Church. 

Walking out onto Victoria Road, I was met with a familiar feeling of transient, end-of-my-tether misery. I realised that I'm never in Victoria unless I'm going somewhere else, that I've never known anyone who's actually from or lived in Victoria. Pneumatic drills, Upper Crust kiosks, dying West End musicals - the whole zone seemed to scream: "Just passing through, no reason to stop here!" to the crowds hulking their luggage round like crucifixes in some pilgrimage to the next shit sushi outlet.

In terms of selling the London experience, Daniel Craig and the Queen parachuting out of a Union Jack helicopter it is not, but I was hopeful it was going to get better. 

I wasn't wrong. The drab main drag of multinational HQs and Caffè Neros opened up into a kind of grand utilitarian boulevard, and I caught sight of the first grand landmark: the London Eye. 

Personally, I've always found these moments - the ones where the London you only usually see on postcards suddenly appears in front of you - somewhat reassuring. As tacky and as temporary looking as the London Eye is now, it's a reminder that you are, after all, in one of the world's great cities, and that as much as it might seem like it in this post-Uber universe, London isn't just a smattering of small backwaters that you shuttle between on the edge of Zone 1 - it's an icon in itself.

Putting myself into the shoes of somebody who was coming here for the first time, it was undeniably impressive.

Eventually, I reached Westminster Abbey, where I saw these guys milling about outside. Dressed in canary yellow jackets and dog collars, I couldn't figure out if they were some obscure branch of the cloth, or a stag party about to drop a banging group selfie. 

Talking of selfies, as I made my way into Parliament Square - once the temporary home of Brian Haw, the now deceased, very committed, slightly mad anti-war campaigner who seemed determined to guilt trip Tony Blair into an early grave - I quickly became aware of a slew of photographic soloists. As is tradition now, all were in the process of adding to the vast canon of YouTube slideshows of world cities set to Green Day's "Time of Your Life" that no one ever watches.

This guy was using something that I had no idea even existed until this moment: the selfie stick, a simple yet effective item that seems to have become both a by-word for the narcissism of modern society and Dapper Laughs' Excalibur.

But it wasn't just selfies. Everywhere around me people were taking photos, almost as if something had actually happened. This green and pleasant patch of British democracy had become a version of the Countryfile photo challenge, except with stuff that literally everyone else on Earth has seen before: people squeezing Big Ben, pretending to push Big Ben, posing with coppers, grinning inanely with a funny hat on. Essentially, people were just inserting themselves into stock images.

I've long wondered what the point of this severely constant documentation is. An occasional cursory flick through on a Facebook album? A tokenistic Instagram heart? Who and what are these photos for?

I guess wedding photos kind of have a point to them, even if none of your friends or family seem to be there, and even if you happen to be getting a massive fuck-off lorry in the background of every shot.

But hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I suppose after all these years of living in London I've finally got something to show for it other than a missing tooth, a media job and a Schwarzschild wormhole of an overdraft.

As I reached Westminster Bridge, it was clear I was now on the frontline of the war for tourists' cash. On every corner came a new opportunity to be ripped off. Rows upon rows of die-cast crap and weather-unresistant hats, models of Big Ben for £20 and Union Jack paraphernalia going for not much less.

I felt like a window-shopper at a street market that nobody would ever return to. As passersby languidly felt up the Horseguard fridge magnets before walking on with a polite "No thanks" I realised I was at the car boot sale of a nation that, on this evidence, has little to offer beyond its past and an incredible lack of scruples. Not that this is unique to London - Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Bruges; you could probably say the same about any of Europe's big tourism cities.

Putting myself into the distressed denim jeans of a visitor, I tried to figure out what kind of country I had wound up in. A country where Mr Bean, a man who can't talk properly and crashes his car a lot, is enough of a cultural export to have masks of him sold alongside The A-Z and postcards of the Queen? I mean, for fuck's sake, he's not even Rowan Atkinson's best character.

Behind him lurked Del Boy and Boris Johnson, two hyper-capitalist chancers at either end of the social spectrum who do little to suggest that London is anything other than a big everything-must-go sale. It seemed depressing, but I guess Paris has its knock-off Chat Noir posters, Madrid has its racks of Ronaldo shirts, Amsterdam its weed-leaf hoodies, etc.

At least, unlike some other European capitals, London is still very much a "working city" - it has a huge financial base and one foot in the Shanghai-led future world. But it was recently named the world's most popular tourist destination, with visitors spending over £3 billion annually. Intrigued to see what it is that makes London so enduringly popular, I carried on over Westminster Bridge, the democratic highway (or "The Bridge of Cocks") that connects the power bases in the north to the people in the south.

Now, surely this man is a functioning, intelligent, capable member of society wherever he hails from? He would never buy a novelty hat, let alone accidentally leave the tag on it and walk across one of the most heavily peopled places in Europe, right? Yet here he was, in London, doing exactly that. A momentary moron, an ambling duck, a victim of his own misplacement - the confused tourist that at some point every one of us has been.

Then I came across this patriotic siren of the Thames, a young lady dolled up like Johnny Adair's downstairs toilet, advertising a nearby fish 'n' chip megastore.

Because I'm British, I don't eat fish 'n' chips; I know that it is invariably terrible, even if you go to one of those posh ones. But I was here to sample British culture in its most flagrant form only, and eating Union Jack fish 'n' chips by Westminster Bridge seemed about as "London" as things could get without having to pay a protection fee to the Bombacilar.

That said, it wasn't cheap. We'd already resigned ourselves to getting ripped off on this day out, but at £18 for two Cokes, a sausage, chips and a fish we were already testing our generous budget, and we hadn't even hit any attractions yet. 

Still, at least we made the most of our money. A single piece of chicken in here is £3. I mean, you could feed an entire family at Morley's for that.

The restaurant itself was laid out like a prison canteen - a long, narrow passage in the grand confines of the old County Hall. It used to be the headquarters of the Greater London Council (headed up by Ken Livingstone, among others), but is now the home of a McDonald's, the Enter The Void-esque future nightmare that is the Namco Funscape and this place (a handy distillation of modern London history if you needed one).

Made up of plastic tables, pictures of Minis and miserable-looking people tucking into their non-specific fish lunches, the atmosphere was somehow kitsch, sterile and utterly bleak all at the same time, like a community theatre production of Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery at Broadmoor.

The food itself was just as wonderfully disgusting as you'd imagine; the chips tasted like the inside of a fly-tipped sofa and the fish tasted worse. Not only that, but the plastic cutlery failed to fulfil any of its intended purposes, shattering on impact like a cheap ruler, and further adding to the sense that you were either on an EasyJet flight or in some kind of institution where metal forks were something you earned through good behaviour. 

After leaving our half-eaten lunches, we quickly found ourselves outside The London Eye, which not long ago had been just a distant vision from Victoria. Up close, it resembled something more like a battery farm or a Border Agency Control zone, with hundreds of sweaty sightseers rammed backpack-to-backpack in a maze of perspex.

Stopping to admire it, I wondered what kind of purpose it will serve in the London that's being built up around it. In a city that now houses so many night clubs with "rooftop" terraces, the Shard's viewing gallery and with more skyscrapers to come, merely "being high up" doesn't seem enough.

That said, on the evidence of the queue, the Eye still seems to be doing a roaring trade. 

The original grand vision of the South Bank was provided by the GLC, a group of pioneering architects determined to bring a touch of Le Corbusier to London, as well as a few forward-thinking Labour politicians keen to haul post-war Britain into the future.

The South Bank came along in the era of the Westwaythe Barbican, the Festival of BritainRoy Jenkins and The Beatles. It was meant to be a glimpse of a new Britain designed for the people. But now it's been taken over by people who put Mexican restaurants in shipping containers and elitist Arts Council types who want to kick all the skaters out.

Now, that original utilitarian vision has been replaced by a twee consumerism, hundreds of stalls, kiosks and glass-fronted piri piri emporiums turning the South Bank into a more expensive version of the Bluewater food court. All around me seemed to be people buying snacks - high-fat, high-price edible baubles; the food equivalent of toys.

Yes, some of London's most valuable institutions, like the Royal Festival Hall, the Tate Modern and the BFI, are on South Bank. But then so is this, the Snog bus, a piece of London's public history painted luminous pink.

The brutalist behemoths still stand, but they do so awkwardly alongside the landmarks of this new, infantile, post-Keep Calm London, like the ruins of an unrealised future. Looking on at these "stone dreams", as Ballard called them, looming quietly over the Snog bus and the Wahaca containers, was like watching Cabaret Voltaire quietly soundcheck in the background of an episode of The Great British Bake Off.

And whose fault is it all? This guy: London's Papa Doc in reflective cycling gear. The man who's trying to get us all to move to Maidenhead as he turns the South Bank from a brutalist dream into a burrito nightmare. 

The Clink looms large in London's folkloric history, one of the darkest parts of a very dark age. It was Britain's most notorious prison for over 500 years, a living hell where society's least wanted were detained, tortured and generally left to rot in disease-infested shallow waters. It's a pure slice of grim London; a world that we're equal parts fascinated with and ashamed of. A reminder of the long and indelible history of cruelty and disease that haunted this city right up to the 20th century

But now, it's a tourist trap par excellence where you pay your £7.50 to the one visible member of staff (a friendly part-time student in a chamber maid outfit, who doubled as both gaolkeeper and gift-shop cashier) to go and experience this shoddily rendered version of medieval inhumanity.

It's easy to laugh at shit museum exhibits, but despite the fact this guy's arms seem to start somewhere behind his own shoulders, I began to feel a kind of affinity with him. As we peered deeply into each other's eyes, I felt a bond forming between my waxy friend and I, realising that I too am a bit-part player in other people's holidays, condemned to looking on as guys in Dunks wander past taking selfies, just about keeping my head above the shitty waste water of the city.

Still, we've got Secret Cinema and contactless payment on the tube now, so I guess I can't really complain.

My Clink souvenir photo still warm in my hand, I found myself outside The London Bridge Experience, another tourist attraction that is based on the horrors of the old city.

I wondered what tourists really thought of London and its history. Did they just come here to experience grimness, in the same way they might go to Rome for buildings, Paris for paintings and Barcelona for seafood? Was our history of violence and deprivation actually the main selling point? Looking at these attractions - the London Dungeon, the Ripper tours, "Mad" Frankie Fraser's gangland London tour, the Blitz Experience, the Tower of London's torture exhibit - it struck me that London might be the world's misery capital. The Vatican with thumbscrews and shit weather; the Rive Gauche with the ghosts of disembowelled sex workers. 

As for the tourists, can you really blame them for their vanity? If they do seem vain, surely it's just in response to a city conceited enough to believe it can sell off the tackiest, most basic version of itself for a grossly inflated price. They're just behaving the same way people from London do when they go to Blackpool.

As the daylight began to fade, I felt no closer to understanding why it is people come to visit London. Was it for the ghosts, the crime and the misery? The Cool Britannia dream? Or is there a more exciting, more modern reason they evidently flock here in their droves? Cara Delevingne? Brick Lane? Dr Who? Street art tours? Food vans?

Rather than call it quits, I decided I had to prolong this exploration of Boris's new London, to go after the one just across the water. The London of Paul Raymond, shit steak houses, indie discos, "models upstairs" and illegal cabbies: The West End.

Would I find the beating heart of a new London, or just more fro-yos and medieval wax martyrs? There was only one way to find out.

The second instalment of Clive's adventure in tourist London will run at tomorrow.


To see more of Luke's work click here.

More London:

A Bittersweet Love Letter to the London Suburbs

Is My Internet Generation Finally Coming Unstuck?

Banter: Some Important Lessons

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