walking guide to the West End
Sixteen prose poems
Take coffee in the Westbury Hotel. Rich American clients spending and relaxing. Outside neon lights and busy traffic taxis and limousines arrogantly ploughing by plate glass windows reflecting worn out sunlight.
Twentieth century glamour and London’s “Moulin Rouge”. Fake furs—are they fake? Impossibly expensive jewels—an ornate display.
Basement car-parks—an underground metropolis sucking the metal out of the city and leaving it deflated. Leave your car overnight.
Watch out on the streets. There’s money out there, waiting to consume and relish the taste. Don’t show off now—leave it till tomorrow. Take five, time out in an espresso bar. Well worth the wait. Have a cheesecake too.
On the edge of the Park
Two straight flames burn like torches outside the hotel framing an archway in the distance. This is Hyde Park Corner, London Hilton reminiscent of the Sixties—meeting a world of people in plush reception rooms, velvet and forgotten.
A double-ended bus swerves round the corner all bright, red and flashing, faces inside concealed and satisfied taking the greedy shopping home.
High walls with spikes like skulls. Footprints of past visitors erased and lacking. Take a look at tomorrow’s city and wait for the fumes to dry out.
Finally sit down by neat flowers arranged by iron railings, hot and bothered. Wait for the gardener to come.
See the white stucco-rich plasterwork—sentinel iron railings, waiting to be called to action. Many faces, famous graces, each house a kingdom’s treasure trove with stout metal sign announcing its intention to be strong but restless.
People passing by—do they live and work here or merely observe and not shun, taking it all in and glancing upward? The cars parked in the street reflect good times.
Ice cold windows, private and uninviting look down on whizzed up automobiles. What you need is money and to know how to spend it.
Trees line up with plots of gravel, burning green and nature misaligned. It’s a testing time for the passer-by—what they would not give to gain access and reign in the splendour.
Early in the morning professional tradesmen arrive to be welcomed in and carry out their duties, supplying and polishing gold and silver, leave the breeze to blow along sweepings of leaves.
Star-spangled square living in tight security and hallowed ground. In one corner a grill of concrete that’s the American embassy, and that’s the way they live here.
Fussy window boxes and more iron railings— cars shooting by just catch the traffic signs and move on. What was a haven of peace now a battle ground against the would-be terrorist, and they like you to know it.
Imagine a summer day and office workers taking a lunch break. That’s the better side to the square. Door knockers smart and gleaming on top quality wood painted and burnished to be of the utmost convenience. So at night neon street light burns out a message of retirement from the day’s activity and everything ready for candlelight suppers.
Inside fax machines and entry phones. It’s a brand new civilisation here—where horse-drawn carriages pulled up in gas-lit streets now a yellow haze works on the senses. Better close the door and sit down in the rich, red armchair.
This is the real West End. Real trees, real cars and wind-swept pavements. More iron railings concealing antiques inside and smiling faces carry on their own world. Grass and trees in the centre—you can sit down and enjoy a sandwich and take it all in.
It’s a mixed economy here, work in an office, sell high-price merchandise or just breathe in the atmosphere. This is basically a place to live. Restaurants a step away and coffee bars dreaming up frothy mochas. People like it like that. They want the bright lights and walking on guard when night time descends. After a city’s busy day everything closes up and couples walk by catching a fragment of the feeling that’s there.
On the corner a shop selling rare books and manuscripts to experts in their field with neat white hair and sparkling steel glasses. The problem is how to gain admittance and state your business in a harsh cold world where only money counts. I wonder if the nightingales pay too.
Over-looking Green Park with newspaper stands and car show-rooms this is a city street. Once again coffee bars and Italian restaurants at prices nobody can afford. People pass by quickly and selfishly caught up in their own affairs and from a broad spectrum of the wealthy classes.
Tourist boards advertise their country’s attractions and in the window you can see a model plane. Further down the shop fronts disappear and rich apartments and clubs stand defiantly. This is Mayfair’s southern face and once again there are iron railings to prove it.
Down in the basements in their own underground world cooks and bar men prepare food and drink for their wealthy clients. Dumb waiters, ropes propelled bring up drinks and cock-tails. Cars park beneath the streets and hot steam rises from condensers. It’s another private place and even the Royal Academy charges the earth for admittance. Get on the bus and take in the whirl of life.
It’s an actual world out there. Real, real people and don’t they hurry about. I wonder where do they make their money to live like this?
Leather handbags and organic shoes—try some Japanese food and take the wine to prove it. Then glance at prints and rich pictures—rich in more ways than one. Can you afford a drink in the Chelsea Potter? Then dive in with the wealthy clientele. The wine’s fine too—especially if you can sit in a bar and pass the time of day in elegant conversation.
Opposite Chelsea Town Hall lie grave stones like pavement slabs. Where are those folk so casual and debonair? Don’t wear cotton and wool when you can sport yourself in best leather and suede.
When it comes to antique shops we’re talking big money—terracotta pots and diamond chandeliers—if you move you might break them. Spot an upholstered sofa with gilt brocade—where on earth did they find it?
way down there’s a twist in the road and you have reached World’s End. Pass a tall figure in grey
mac and long shoes
and it’s the end of the road for me.
You are in university country. Tall trees with grey and brown peeling bark. Underneath the canopy sits a figure reading an impossibly long modern novel. Women in shades and leather coats consume exotic baguettes held temptingly in paper wrappings.
Above it all presides Hotel Russell, a deep terra cotta with another basement protected by iron railings. How many rooms are for guests and how many an Edwardian secret shut-in? Only the porter knows.
You can buy London policemen, teddy bears and cameras plus post-cards of Big Ben and Eros, but haven’t you seen them all before?
Taxis whirl by and the odd Routemaster Bus makes a statement of content. To the south lies the back of London University, but no one knows where all the students are.
In another hotel a fountain plays tastefully its water song and tourists with more cameras and suitcases arrive by the minute. Look through the window of an Italian cafe and see the gaggia machine and spouts for hot milk. Contemplate how many hotel guests have gone before you and left a coffee cup and plate of unfinished pasta.
St James's Square
Tall statue, kind of sepulchral, stands in the centre. Trees open to the air and blowing leaves. This time iron railings call for a more sedate experience.
Then there is that exclusive library: the London library, thrilling to book lovers of any genre, or should I say type.
So much money in such a small area—town houses of the rich, gleaming sash windows and tight iron fittings. Nowhere to eat but just consume the elegance and detached urban rhetoric.
Around the corner plate glass galleries—British and continental paintings, maybe from some eclipsed country house, but who buys them and where do they go? I suspect an unknown nation of plutocrats, the type that leave their car in Residents-Only Parking around the square, and slightly arrogant offices of international companies who need a London address. This is the very finest.
Take a last look and leave, sensitive to people who have to live up to what society demands off them and take a coffee break in all-white bright kitchens, fitted up with pot plants and views of Venice.
This is really classic cultural enterprise. At night lit up with glaring neon lights with street cafes sprawling on the pavement, littered with half-eaten pizzas and empty bottles of Alps spring water. It’s a must—have a meal and a drink before the show.
The Odeon demands attention, sitting centre-stage with a bright red lit-up facade. In the grass arena statues of the literary greats, Shakespeare included, pondering their undeserved fall from grace. Why bother to come to London when the cafes are definitely an exclusive continental mix?
Once again iron railings section off the centre of the square. Poor grass is choked by litter-crushed metal cans and fast food packaging. Is this all there is to London—consuming and discarding? But then there is an electric thrill playing throughout the square. It’s the thrill of show business and London’s own Hollywood.
Look above the restaurant’s facades and see the decayed stucco work of the earlier houses. One day what is going to replace these gleaming glass panels?
Make a start at Piccadilly Circus with the giant bottle of Coke and big friendly clock. Shaftesbury leads away beckoning to the bright lights beyond.
Soon you reach China Town with an overpowering smell of cooking fat and a panoply of decorative dragons, then the street markets, an invitation to Soho’s pleasures. You can still buy vinyl records, and who buys vegetable produce in this hub of the west end?
But the major player here is the theatres. Londoners rarely get out to these shows. It’s the tourist trade and curious folk from the provinces that make the effort. Each is a temple of entertainment, with glass doors and elegant fittings. When you finally emerge after the show its time to find a place for a quiet drink and more elegant conversation.
This avenue seems to be full of buses heading to Islington and beyond. You can get drunk on the rush of life here. Nobody knows you and they are not coming back here again.
Charing Cross Road
This is a serious road in a strictly unserious area. Only a few book shops remain but still popular with intellectuals from the literary diaspora. But Chinese restaurants and computer game shops are invading fast. It is definitely not a village but a transported element of Victorian fun wanting a new home.
Once again look up and see the gothic windows and backdated brickwork. Half way up is Cambridge Circus with an expensive pub and giant theatre show place.
Then continue on to the world’s biggest book shop and at last catch a glimpse of Centrepoint. There are homeless people here. But nobody notices them and they rush past clutching shopping bags with icons of class stores defiantly making a statement.
Then there are the fountains. But what role do they play? There are too many cars screaming by to enjoy them and the water is being wasted away.
We are in undefined territory. A little backwater of Soho, unknown but perhaps not unloved. There are the iron railings again. The trees are bleached and wanting but someone wants them. This is a fine square for houses—this time Georgian decaying fast. Purple brickwork and painted window frames.
But this is a village. Lacking grocery shops and laundrettes with a community on the edge. Reeling back from the West End and drab commercialism. Some of the houses may be offices but the doors are brightly painted and cheerful. There are a few music businesses here—selling drums and publishing songs.
Off centre a few street cafes have glistening steel coffee machines and white porcelain cups. Men in sharp Italian suits disappear through security doors into cosmopolitan offices behind. When it rains the sash windows seem sad and lifeless.
Once again the vegetation is struggling to survive among the litter—sandwich packets and wrappings from raisin bars. As the evening comes into its own see the glare of the street lamps and say goodbye to moody terraced houses.
This is an extra large world. Tate Britain and huge steel grey granite offices. It’s a statement of power.
The brown Thames flows past not impeded by heavy brick embankments. You wonder who works in these fortresses of stone and steel.
By the Tate coaches from all over Europe lie parked and empty their cargo of tourists onto the busy street.
Nearer to Parliament the power gets stronger and more demanding. Some of the doors are ornately carved and seem like art deco at its strongest. Figures in long coats hurry by, eager to get home or to the shops beyond.
It is not a place to linger and take in the atmosphere. For a start there’s nowhere to sit and drink—all you can do is watch the pigeons hunt for food on the stone cold pavements. A Henry Moore sculpture sits defiantly and makes the whole world seem to be imploding in on itself in boredom and busy people. But at least it’s got the river for company.
It is all too important to take in any cosy atmospheres. The Cenotaph standing like a pedestal of grey stone laughing at the cars speeding by. You can look up at the little windows and wonder who works in these busy anthills.
To the left the green expanse of St James’s Park and the elegance of Horseguards Parade. The tourist cannot make a statement here, just carry on and away.
Near the top end a few public houses appear. Adverts for home-cooked food and frosted glass.
Half way down the Banqueting House—all that is left of the old palace. It looks really grand with Italian style windows and classical window frames. But who really cares? They are on their way to somewhere more important—the pizza restaurant.
Quiet side streets lead you to the river. You can yearn for the country here among monoliths of grey stone, but important things are going on inside and it is best not to interfere.
Neat gravel paths with useful waste paper bins lead to the interior. Friendly office staff take a sandwich and a take-away coffee and consume them on a metal bench. In the distance the tower of Westminster Cathedral and the environs of Buckingham Palace. There are railings all along the north side by Piccadilly. The trees are shabby but still trying to be grand. The grass not so thick with litter as before. Avenues of trees demarcate the boundaries and sections of the park. You are in the shadow of the palace yet not oppressed by it. People can relax and enjoy the vistas. Space enough to stretch out and enjoy. At the west end of the park Piccadilly has shed its shop fronts and is quiet and brooding. Walk with the office staff among the trees. Feel the breeze and be glad the cars can’t get you here.
© Charles Jobson. For permission to re-use contact firstname.lastname@example.org.