By Papri Sri Raman
Going around is a British invention, not improbable in the land of the cartwheel penny, but the London Eye tops it all. It earns 25,000 pounds every day.
This millennium marker was supposed to last just five years but has gone around for 17. The slowly moving Ferris Wheel takes 15 minutes to get to the top and it is fashionable for the elite to propose to their sweethearts in one of the cabins while going up, but “it could be the longest 15 minutes of your life down if she said ‘no'”, as Mathew Samson, a passerby who caught me intently gazing at the marvel, put it.
Sensibly, no cars and taxis are allowed in the visitor interest areas, which keep the city very egalitarian, often making one wonder who still lives behind these scaffolding-faced granite walls with embroidered doors. All the great buildings are being patched up. Prince Charles’ office is unassuming and he is known to be a vehement critic of London’s ugly buildings surrounding St Paul’s or sandwiched between Globe Theatre and ITV, but the tour guides’ joke these days is: “Charles does know something about ugliness, doesn’t he.”
For a city selling Royalty, Londoners are pretty tongue-in-cheek while showing more than 30 million visitors annually the rear of Buckingham Palace, the gardens open in a particularly rainless sunny August. They all know the Queen isn’t there… “she prefers to stay away when gawking visitors stroll through the open palace rooms”.
In the lesser palaces, anecdotes on the memorable and mad kings; whatever the stories, Londoners do know how to amuse the stray visitor; theirs is a city that thrives on tourism and tall tales.
The city knows how to, literally, feed the imaginations of visitors — 18,000 restaurants, some 5,000 pubs and about 40 cafes and sit-outs per mile.
And the people love to point out Elton John’s penthouse, “no one is there now, of course… it’s all blown in the wind…”, the Hard Rock café…the Beatles and Michael Jackson and Madonna and now John Beatty.
Samuel Peppy’s The Jamaica Wine House, the first coffee house in London that opened in 1652, is one of the city’s more famous pubs now. Naturally, there are snide remarks about how Peppy did “nothing about” the great London fire and just wrote his diary. Only five (officially just 16) people died in a fire that destroyed two-thirds of wooden London and destroyed the city’s Great Plague as well.
And how the great Christopher Wren rebuilt it stone by stone. They will even show you the steps which he climbed down to the ferry to cross the Thames when he was building St Paul’s. Few recall the 1212 fire, which the London bridge, made of stone, survived and has been built over, a witness to many fires, the latest being the one at the Grenfell Tower.
On the Waterloo Bridge, “a great job ladies”, thumbs up, “you built this bridge…though it was supervised by a man”, a bit cheesy, but that’s London for you.
The independent forecaster Oxford Economics has predicted that London will welcome 35.6 million visitors by 2020. And they are all just walking around, or in the “hybrid” electric buses or the tube, which itself is more than 150 years old. With babies mostly in prams, toddlers, teenagers, everyone is on a trip to London. One might say, what’s so great about London? Especially when one could be a tourist anywhere in the world.
“Well, we have Ripley’s,” points out my African Londoner bus driver. It is amazing actually to see the number of people swirling around Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square, watching a street play in Hyde Park or getting into the eleven odd theatres in and around Leicester Square or just watching the jugglers performing or walking into China Town. Soho is no longer James Bond’s crime scene; it’s become an elite district.
And London, the world’s financial hub? All the banks have been moved out of Bank Street in Canary Wharf. Margaret Thatcher began housing there for émigré vote banks, now that housing is office towers in Dockland. Money is in tourism not in the banks; visitors in London spend almost 18 billion pounds on hotels, restaurants, shopping and sightseeing annually.
London is a great survivor; it will always raise a laugh. At PRET, with the Filipino family at the next table all ears, small talk over organic cappuccino or English breakfast is about nuking North Korea. And yet another story, of some famous artist being put in the Tower dungeons; when they brought him out, they found it was Trump.