Three weeks ago I started a new job in the heart of London’s West End. I freelance and have worked all over the place, but it’s been a while since I worked in central London. It was a jolt to the system. I was suddenly part of the commuting hordes again; standing on the wet platform in rush hour amid a crowd of strangers frowning at their phones, caught up in the jostle to get onto the train and the subsequent ordeal of spending twenty minutes with my face pressed into a stranger’s armpit.
From Euston Station, I could take the underground to Tottenham Court Road but the idea of more crowds, more frowns, more armpits is sometimes too much to bear and I usually choose the twenty-five minute walk to the office instead. Regardless of the rain. Yet still the scowling city makes its presence felt. The other day, I watched as a pedestrian accidentally stepped out in front of a cyclist:
“GET OUT OF THE F***ING WAY, MORON!”
came the response.
It wasn’t yet 9 am. Good morning, London.
Human beings. I’ve been struggling with them a bit lately. The inherent meanness, the miserable faces, the hostility, the constant preoccupation with mindless trivia, the relentless pursuit of the inconsequential. How misguided most of us are.
My office is in a square that overlooks a garden and my favourite part of the day is walking through this garden on my way to work. Two weeks ago, the flower beds were bursting with cream and pink tulips and primroses, a raspberry ripple of delight.
This morning, like every morning, I caught my train to Euston and embarked on my walk through Bloomsbury to Soho. Approaching Oxford Street, a red bus sounded its horn at a pedestrian who was standing with a skateboard under his arm, precariously close to the bus lane. The pedestrian took a reluctant step out of the way before giving the driver the finger as he passed. He leaned close to the driver’s window and then made sure he was in the eye-line of his wing-mirror, to make absolutely sure the driver saw his hateful gesture. I sighed as I crossed the road and entered the garden, an oasis of calm and beauty amid the ugliness. There, in the middle of the garden was a man. He was quite a small fellow, in his fifties I’d say, with dark, weather-worn skin. I’ve noticed him before in his council-branded uniform, cutting the lawns and clearing away leaves. I walked up to him.
“Excuse me, are you the gardener here?”
“Yes, I am.” He says with a big smile. I detect an accent that hints at warmer climes.
“Did you make these flower beds?”
He looks apologetic.
“No ma’am, someone else does the flowerbeds, I just cut the lawns and tidy up.”
“Walking through here is my favourite part of the day”, I tell him, “I love the flowers.”
His eyes brighten as he points out which flowerbed is his favourite and informs me that new flowers will be planted in the next week or two.
“Do you have a garden?” He asks.
He goes on to tell me that sometimes, when they re-design the beds, there are leftover plants which end up being thrown away if there’s no space for them. It makes him sad because it’s so wasteful. He asks if I would be interested in taking them.
“Come and see me next week and I’ll see if I can put some flowers aside for you.” He smiles.
I thank him profusely and point out my office building to him, telling him I visit the garden every day and that I’m sure I’ll see him around. We exchange names and shake hands. It is a rare moment of warmth in an otherwise cold and unfriendly city.
It would be easy for me to get caught up with the London way of life. As I settle into my job and work slowly starts to consume my thoughts, it wouldn’t take long for me to become just another frowning worker, hunched on the platform, eyes glued to my phone, eager to snap at anyone who might step in my way; no longer a detached observer of this urban animosity, but a heedless participant. But I shan’t let that happen. As my new friend demonstrated, people can be capable of kindness and friendliness, even in this city.
There are rare blooms among the weeds and we should aspire to be them.