–but I went to Birmingham once and I didn’t like it,’ warned Aled before I left, ‘Too many people!’
Birmingham is quiet when I change trains — not quite what it seems.
I am bound to join the World War One remembrance pilgrims to the Tower of London on a suitably wet November day.
The trouble with cities is the constant state of flux where everything is changed each time you visit.
Today, at Euston, they have hidden all the bus ticket machines and amongst all the psychedelic signage the Mayor of London proclaims that contactless debit cards now operate the buses (they may well do, but they haven’t reached Mid-Wales yet) — and Oyster cards — I have forgotten the one my daughter gave me.
‘Excuse me!’ I say to a passing commuter who spins round, wide eyed. The young woman with strings falling from her ears has been dragged from a parallel universe into mine and is terrified. She does not speak, she does not stop.
My daughters have warned me of the danger of my country ways — you have to walk in a bubble, Mum, it’s the only way to survive. You mustn’t keep invading people’s personal space.
I’m not stupid, I do not ask the two policemen with machine guns and I resist the temptation to point my camera at them — sometimes it flashes automatically.
Okay, I think. I can do careful. I approach the next person from the front with my arms close to my body but in full view, I smile but do not show my teeth, ‘Excuse me! Where can I buy an Oyster card?’
The nice young man directs me to the Underground and down the steps I go — like those on a harbour wall down into a sea of people, swirling about as flows from different directions meet in a turbulent confluence. I join a current and am carried along. I am a strong swimmer but I can feel the power and I know that I am not in a bubble. Crossing the flow, ‘I’m sorry!’ ‘Excuse me!’ ‘So sorry!’ I join an eddy that buffets me back to the steps and up to safety.
Looks like I’ll have to walk — I’m quite good at that.
By the time I get to St Pancras reason has prevailed and it’s quieter. There are only about two hundred people in the Underground ticket hall and the ways to the exits are clearly visible — I am not phobic — just a normal human being — with instinct.
Here, something strange happens — like an hallucination… Fireman Sam helps me — really, in his high-vis suit, helmet and visor — he helps me with the machine, the queue behind was getting restive. I thank him and climb back into the air brandishing my Oyster card and am able to share my local knowledge with several Geordie pensioners who are trying to get on a bus. They are explaining to the bus driver that they have money — he cannot understand what they are saying and stares nervously from his glass cage.
At the Tower, 800,000 ceramic poppies commemorate our fallen in WW1. Everywhere I look, their descendants, their grand children, great grandchildren, great nieces and nephews, move slowly and politely, stopping to take photographs and waiting for someone to let them into a place by the railings to get their shot or their selfie — strange. It’s raining and the poppies seem to miss their mark today but the snake of people, come to see them and be moved, does not.
In London even the trees are grey, muted by urban substances and the Thames smells, as it did when I was a child, like no other river I know, but at dusk something strange happens.