This was supposed to be funny. I wanted to make a map of London for quite some time. The city is as diverse as the whole of Europe and that makes it an excellent target for satirical jokes. But somewhere in the middle of the realization of my idea I discovered my approach to Europe simply didn’t work with London. First of all, I like Europe. I adore the cultural amalgam it represents, its nuances and flavors. This sympathy, I hope, is easy to detect, even in the harshest puns on every map. London is a different case.
It’s a strange, almost artificial place. It tries to imitate cities like New York but it lacks spontaneity and dare. Yes, I know it’s the “design capital of the world” and all that. But I also know – from experience – that all those statements don’t reflect its own qualities, they are imported from the outside world and carefully planted on local soil, backed with the money generated with the help of its financial institutions. London resembles an aging Hollywood star – pretty on the silver screen but frighteningly shocking from up close.
My first association about London has always been restraint. It’s not something you can sense initially. In fact, it’s easy to feel anonymous in this town, even with all the CCTV cameras around. If there aren’t all the labels warning you are under surveillance, you can barely notice them. One thing that can’t go unnoticed however is how distanced and silent people are. This is a place where the individual is totally closed in himself, where every time you step out on the street or enter public transport, you wrap yourself in an impenetrable mental shell. Nobody is curious about your haircut. Or the clothes you wear. Or the newspaper you read. People are in a spontaneous agreement not to notice each other. It’s almost a matter of honor to stay as invisible as you can, with as little impact on your immediate environment as you can afford. You may notice something similar in every big city around the world but there’s nothing that could compare to the silence reigning in the London underground.
Which brings me to the next omnipresent feature in this city. Fencing. There are physical signs backing all those mental restrictions. The most iconic of them all – the Transport for London roundels. They may be the epitome of corporate design and branding but reduced to their semantic foundations they actually resemble one of the most widespread regulatory road signs humanity has ever known. In all cultures where modern transport is available, this sign is used to communicate one simple message: Do Not Enter!
And if this example is too abstract for your taste, perhaps you can try to notice the actual fencing on most crossings and public areas. It borders wasteful extravagance and it’s menacingly disturbing, especially in parks and children’s playgrounds. Londoners love to wrap themselves with iron, sometimes even with multiple layers of it. There are parks that look like steel onions. I suppose this fencing frenzy gives them a sense of security but most of those fences are frustratingly impractical by any common sense. And yet they are there and nobody seems to mind.
The mental restraint is just the beginning of course. A lot has been said about London’s tolerance and multiculturalism. And yet, almost any culture, dipped in an environment like this, sooner or later adopts its characteristics. The tolerance is not a conscious effort but simply a reflection of apathy. People aren’t surprised by the way you look or the attitudes you have mainly because they don’t genuinely care. And they rarely care because their own values and opinions are numb, suppressed by this very restraint ordering them to mind their own business and avoid closeness to others as much as possible.
That was the reason I never managed to like London and the reason I got out of there. And it’s the same reason why this map didn’t become what it was supposed to become in the first place. Instead of being joyfully satirical, it bitterly grotesque. But at least it is genuine.