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Signs Taken for Londres

A writer has moved to London – and is still trying to process it.

I moved to London quite recently. I cannot pretend that this isn’t so. Every night I go to sleep in a bed that is in London and, when I wake up, there I am again. London, or ‘Londres’ if you are one of these people who isn’t embarrassed to write stuff like that in a text message. London! It’s been months now and it still surprises me a bit. I’ve tried twice before and I couldn’t make it work. I was so confused and so broke, and the accidental sight of my own tragic body language in a shop window was enough to ruin my weekend. I had these terrible bootleg trousers that had been fine in Cape Town but in London they became office slacks, and when I wore them I looked like I worked at a bad vibes chemist. Like I was dispensing over-the-counter bad vibes medicine that didn’t even really work. London, as everybody knows, is a terrible place to be lost.

If you go to the reptiles and amphibians section at the Natural History Museum you will see a giant salamander in a case, displayed next to its own skeleton, with a label that says, ‘Biggest Living Amphibian’. Its wrong-shaped body, its puffy feet that look like a child’s drawing of a cat’s paws, an obviously pleading expression that still somehow relieves the observer of any need to feel sorry for it, its overall air of sponginess where if it brushed against your leg in the dark you would scream until you fainted. When I picture myself in London at the age of 18, or again at the age of 25, I picture that salamander on the bus, in office slacks, accompanied by its own dreadful skeleton. I didn’t know what I should be doing, or why, and I couldn’t even begin to picture how to change that. I was so bored of myself, and consequently so bored of everything that presented itself to my senses. Even when I could see that a place was objectively nice, it still came with the insurmountable obstacle of having me shuffling about in the surroundings, this pointless lizard that no one really needed to be around (there is a stuffed frog in the same case as the salamander, posed crawling away from the Biggest Living Amphibian with strong, purposeful movements – that was me and other people). I left, and things turned out fine, but still: almost all of my impressions of London were coloured by my tenure at the sour-times apothecary. I didn’t even really like thinking about it.

I thought I’d always feel like that, and then, for reasons that are too romantic to seem believable coming from a salamander in bootleg office pants, I moved here. Again, for reasons that are too miraculous to seem plausible coming from the world’s Biggest Living Amphibian, I am amazingly happy here now, but I still struggle to see the city with any kind of objectivity. As is by now evident, I don’t know how to talk about London without talking about myself, which means that anyone who asks me what it’s like to live here gets subjected to a long story about a time I had low self-esteem and then a long story about being happy. Nothing about London at all, really.

I am trying. Someone the other day asked me how London was and I said that people talk about Pret constantly, and one of the main things they say is that it’s ‘actually great’. Another time I said I was once in the pub and they played the song Karma Policeat last rounds and everyone seemed to get a lot out of that. Sometimes I say that it’s really expensive. Other times I say, brother, the only thing you will get for free in London is me telling you that it’s expensive. Good parks, good trees, good walking around on my own listening to uncool music. Big Ben is here. The British Library is a great place to work, as well as a great place to eat a dry sandwich and stare into the middle distance with an expression of almost frightening blankness. Good flowers all around. The first week I was here, I saw a famous art historian lose his temper in Soho. He lurched up from his seat at the head of the table, accused the person sitting next to him of being ‘a fantasist par excellence’, and ran tearfully out of the restaurant. It’s London. A famous city that no one ever shuts up about, either professing to hate it in a borderline rabid way, or to defend it so emphatically that they will jump down the throat of anyone who, for example, goes on Twitter and makes the harmless and obviously accurate observation that Vauxhall isn’t really a place.

I’m working on it, doing all sorts of projects in an effort to understand what this city is actually like. I recently read a magazine about the Queen. One thing I’ve been doing is spending a long time staring at ephemera: advertising billboards, the signs above the shops, the names of the restaurants, notices pasted next to the mirror in the bathrooms at the pub, in the hope that they will reveal something illuminating about this city. I offer some preliminary conclusions as follows

probable meaning of sign

1.       Your watchful best friend who doesn’t have a driver’s license is sitting beside you thinking: I’d like to try this out for myself one of these days. Here I am, looking at the speedometer and dreaming of the hour when it will be me behind the wheel. I’m an adult who has never been in a car before and I’m really learning a lot as I observe my devil-may-care best friend. I’m loving this.

2.      The way you drive is making your best friend nervous (he is a highly strung man).

3.       Just as you are failing to keep an eye on your speed, you have somehow missed the waves of disapproval issuing from that pious best friend of yours (she is a narc).

conclusions i have been able to draw about london from looking at this sign

This is a place where it is assumed that the best way to get people to adjust their behaviour is not to simply point out its possible consequences (you could get your licence revoked, you could hurt someone), but rather to make insinuating remarks about how that behaviour may be perceived by others.

probable meaning of sign

No real room for misinterpretation here.

conclusions i have been able to draw about london from looking at this sign

This is a place where latent indignation about the very idea of people not following the rules can lend a troubling cast to attempts at jocularity. A place where you can sometimes feel that you are in nursery school being scolded by a matronly teacher who doesn’t like you. A place where people love to make you think about the toilet and what goes on there.

probable meaning of sign

You can take your lonely puppy here so it can make friends with the other lonely puppies. Don’t run away with the idea that it’s an actual party though.

conclusions i have been able to draw about london from looking at this sign

This is a place where, on at least one occasion, a nice couple has arrived at the vet with their little dog, all three of them wearing shy, hopeful expressions on their faces. A party! Maybe there will be music! The little dog is wagging his tail; the little couple are pushing their glasses up their noses in a way that tells you they are ready to enjoy themselves. They arrive at the vet and realise that instead of a party, it’s just little dogs standing around barking unhappily at each other, unsettled by the presence of the headmistress-like figure who is running the show and who is making every last one of them feel that they are in trouble. The dogs’ owners are pressed against the walls, avoiding each other’s gaze, mortified almost beyond words at their presumption. Someone puts a sign up after the meeting to make sure no such misunderstanding can ever occur again.

probable meaning of sign

Bring your baby to this koala talk. Not anyone else’s baby. Your own one.

conclusions i have been able to draw about london from looking at this sign

Nothing yet, I just think this is a funny sign.

probable meaning of sign

These are the main things there are to know about a giant salamander.

conclusions i have been able to draw about london from looking at this sign

This is a place that makes no great claims for the giant salamander, advances no compelling reasons for why this wrong-seeming creature should be tolerated and possibly even appreciated. Is it really so great that it lives in a stream? Are we to applaud the fact that it eats snails? There are blue whale skeletons in the Natural History Museum. There is a four-volume copy of The Birds of America and an intact stegosaurus skeleton. There is a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. The giant salamander is somehow also there and no one is rude about that, despite having many obvious reasons to be. This is a place, in other words, where a giant salamander can conduct its affairs without overt disapproval, where it can go about its business without anyone minding.

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