The Dark Side of the London Moon

David on tourists’ London as opposed to Londoners’ London. AKA how to read the London room.


London calling. David here.

Somewhere in Shakespeare there’s a scene – this is from memory, alas, I haven’t been able to get a bead on the play, let alone track down the exact scene – anywhere somewhere in Shakespeare-land there’s a passage in which a nobleman, speaking to a fellow nobleman, talks about the little people, the ordinary people, how they’re always prattling about the deeds of the high and mighty. 

Put me in mind, ever so slightly, of myself and my fellow guides. And indeed, our walkers.

That moment in Shakespeare came to mind because of yet another, Covid-induced epiphany. I was out on one of my neighbourhood walks – this past 13 months I’ve walked these parts – West Hampstead, Hampstead, St. Johns Wood, Kilburn, Little Venice, Queens Park – walked these parts more in 13 months than I’d walked them in 40 years.

And I needs must say, very rewarding it’s been. I know my neighbourhood and its environs a whole lot better than I did before Covid clamped its fangs in our lives. 

And inevitably it seems to me, it’s occurred to me that if I hardly knew my neck of the woods, well, then how little do visitors know it.

In short, I realised – and here it is in epiphany form – that 99 percent of London – and the life Londoners live– is the dark side of the moon for visitors.

Which brings to mind a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, “What is the city but the people?”

And what followed from that “dark side of the moon” realisation – the 99 percent realisation – is that in many cases visitors probably know visitor’s London better than most Londoners know it. By visitor’s London I mean the West End and St. James’s and Mayfair and the City and Knightsbridge and Kensington and Hampstead and Marylebone and Bloomsbury and the Bankside. For two weeks of the year in late June/early July you can probably add Wimbledon to that list. And I suppose Kew and Richmond and yes, Bayswater and Notting Hill and Holland Park. And that pretty well covers it. And, yes, that London – tourists’ London – a lot of tourists probably do know it better than a lot of Londoners know it. 

Londoners’ London and tourists’ London – the city (called London) that those two groups of people know – well, the obvious dichotomy there put me in mind of Kipling’s great line east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.

The next step on from that of course was my wondering whether that great lock “never” can be unlocked.

In the way of these things, my mind, my London memories, whirled back many years. Nearly 40 years ago, I should think. To that summer when my best boyhood pal and his wife came to visit us.

Ron and I had grown up in a town of 5,000 people in southwestern Wisconsin. His wife Jody was a Wisconsin farm girl. I came to London. Ron and Jody went, by gosh, to Oshkosh. They were teachers. I think Ron had never been out of the midwest. And Jody perhaps never out of Wisconsin.

And we had a great time. It was fun showing them round London. And for sure, they were very interested in, they liked what they saw. You know, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London, the British Museum, the National Gallery, some West End theatre, a Thames cruise, all the usual suspects. 

But what struck me so forcibly was Jody’s reaction – in particular – to quotidian stuff, ordinary, daily life stuff. She responded almost viscerally to the doll’s house size of our fridge. Its only about three feet tall. Hers back in Oshkosh was probably eight feet tall. And they had a ten foot long freezer in the cellar. Well, she’d never been out of Wisconsin so it follows really that you just assume that what you’ve got and the way you do things in Wisconsin is par for the course elsewhere. And in that same vein, it was a bit of a jolt to her that we food shopped every day. It was as if all of that made a bigger impression than the wonders of the Tower of London or the Changing of the Guard. I could see the penny dropping. That life in Oshkosh was much more “convenient” – a big shopping trip once every two or three weeks to the Mall and then home to that huge fridge and freezer. But on the other hand, HELLO, David and Mary eat fresh food every day.

How other people live. That’s a big part of what travel’s all about, what you get from it. 

There’s a spectrum there. Ron and Jody were very green. I’m obviously a long way toward the other end of the spectrum. I’ve lived here for half a century. I’m pretty well acclimated. And I’ve been aware from the get-go that those first 20-odd years in Wisconsin were their own advantage in figuring this place out. I have a younger sister who in a childhood accident lost an eye. Don’t worry, didn’t slow her down a bit. She’s immensely successful. But even as a little kid I understood that having both eyes provided you with perspective. Helped especially with depth perception. Well, having those 20 odd years in Wisconsin gave me perspective – that my fellow Britons didn’t have – on my adopted home, London, England, the United Kingdom. Its practices and mores and beliefs and customs and ways of doing things and feeling about things. So that’s been an advantage.

But there’s also a slight disadvantage. Relocating yourself, as I did. Uprooting yourself and moving to another country, you never become a native. You’re never completely at home with subtle cultural nuances. It’s a little like speaking a foreign language. If you learn a foreign language as a small child – before, say, the age of six – your accent’s going to be perfect. Learn it after the age of six you’re always going to speak it with at least a slight accent. Well, the same principle applies to transplanting yourself – in my case from Wisconsin to London – as an adult. You’re always going to have an accent in your grasp of your adopted home’s nuances and mores and sensibilities, etc.

So what that’s meant, in my case, is that I’ve surrounded myself with friendly natives. Londoners I can call on to explain some of the really subtle stuff to me. Stuff that they understand, that they get, instinctively and completely naturally. They just know how to read the room, so to speak. My read will always have a slight accent to it.

So they help me out with that. 

I’m talking of course about my English wife Mary – always sounds strange to me that phrase, as if I’ve also got a Ukrainian wife and a Nigerian wife and a Peruvian wife, I don’t have, needless to say, I just have one wife and she’s English. But anyway, yes, Mary helps out with my imperfect “cultural/nuances” accent. As do my fellow London Walks guides.

To varying degrees. Adam’s a huge help. We’ve got a lot in common. but there are also huge differences. In common, we’re both journalists, though he was a print journalist, I was a television journalist. We’re both incomers to London. The difference is I’m of course an American and Adam’s a Scot. So he gets it about all kinds of things – the stuff comes naturally to him, being a Brit – that I read less than perfectly, that I read with my American accent.

So I call on Adam. Get him to shed light on matters the answers to which aren’t in any guidebook. Aren’t on Wikipedia. Or Quora. Really fine-grained, subtle cultural stuff. But no less interesting for being fine-grained and subtle. 

So where’s this going? Well, this has really been leading up to an announcement, of sorts, about where this podcast, on occasion, is going. I thought, I’m going to see if it’s possible to make this podcast, from time to time, a satellite that goes round to the dark side of the moon. Shows it to visitors. Yes, that dark side of the moon, the 98 percent of London that visitors never see. In some cases, that’s real estate, London neighourhoods that visitors never get to. In other cases, it’s figurative London. The internal London landscape that’s in most Londoners’ heads.

So look out for some of those trips to the dark side of the moon. They’ll be coming up here occasionally. First one later this week. I’m interviewing Adam on Wednesday. The piece should go up here a day or two later.

Oh and there are other goodies to look forward to. I’m interviewing a London artist on Thursday. Interview Concepcion of Seville Walks tomorrow. And Federico of Madrid walks later this week.

So, yes, good stuff coming. 

See you then.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *