Yesterday I travelled by train and then the Tube into central London to attend a reunion, a thing I rarely do these days – travelling to that part of the metropolis I mean, not so much the reunion.
The occasion was a quarterly lunch that we’ve informally arranged – one of those inherently commendable gatherings based upon a collective experience that we once had together decades ago – you know the sort of thing, perhaps an educational, military, sporting or ‘special interest’ hobby – which was sufficiently life-shaping or enjoyable to forge a comradeship that has survived the vagaries of life as we have lived it ever since, despite widely-different careers, monetary ups and downs and indeed success or failure (however you might define both those) we have individually posted.
I guess it was a sign of our mature time of life that one of our prime-movers failed to show up – possibly the product of nothing more serious than a temporary ‘senior moment’.
But I digress. The subject of my piece today is the experience of journeying to what was once such familiar territory after a significant gap in time.
Once of the plusses of having reached a certain age is the advent of the Freedom Pass – which in my case enables me to travel free by train or Tube into central London, as long as I set off after 9.30am.
My passage by train to Waterloo was uneventful and relaxing. By missing the rush hour, I was able to choose my seat in a half-empty carriage and settle down to read a copy of the weekly motor trade magazine Auto Express, an organ which I habitually choose on a Wednesday (because that’s the day it gets published), not because I’m a petrol-head, but rather because about two decades ago I discovered it took me exactly 35 minutes – the time it takes a train to reach Waterloo from my local station – to read said mag from cover to cover.
When reaching Piccadilly Circus en route to Soho ‘s Wardour Street, I had my first and lasting revelation. The area around Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Soho, Fitzrovia, Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square was a happy-hunting ground, career-wise and personally, for perhaps half my adult life so far.
What struck me was how today it continues to look exactly the same as it always did – i.e. Piccadilly Circus itself, the Trocadero, the cinemas and theatres, the naff steak houses, the hawkers, the amazing mix of the population walking about, the taxis, the mix of glamourous upmarket shops, positive dives and ‘cod-Carnaby Street Britain’ tourist souvenir shops and stalls (featuring the ‘I went to London and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ T-shirts). You might say all of human life was there.
And yet. And yet, simultaneously, just by a ten or twenty percent degree, things had moved on. There were different shops, different types of advertising hoardings, different bill-boards, different food stalls (though probably the similar, time-honoured, likelihood of contracting botulism from their sausage-in-a-rolls and kebabs) and indeed different fashions.
If you think about it, this was both inevitable and unremarkable. Time moves relentlessly onwards and everything on this planet evolves, sometimes nudged by rational human design but more often simply by the random effect of life itself. But yesterday – probably because it was at least four months since I last journeyed to central London and I was in a particularly reflective frame of mind – I was reminded of it to a degree that impressed me.
Perhaps I should get out more …