thoughtwisps One commit at a time


This post is part of my challenge to write more in 2019! I intend to write every day but as you can see, I’m slipping slightly from my goal - mostly due to work and challenges of relocating. Excuses, excuses! These posts are mostly unpolished fragments from various notebooks.

A few weeks ago, I took a car from Tower Hamlets in East London to Heathrow Airport. Despite living in London for over four years, I’d never taken a car from my apartment to the airport, always opting for the underground or the Heathrow Express. What struck me most as I made this journey from east to west on land instead of underground, were the gradients that were on display, gradients of colours and building materials, wealth and even time. After I came home, from my trip I wrote some reflections about these gradients that one experiences as an inhabitant of London in my notebook and today I’m collecting some of those fragments from that notebook into this blog post.


I the four years that I had occupied my apartment on the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs, I had become selectively blind to the trash-blighted streets of my neighbourhood. The half-spilled bins across the Millwall Sailing center, the abandoned bags of clothing outside of the Barkantine recycling corner, the slightly crumbling facade of the off-license grocer. Yet, one hastens to say, there were nice, even beautiful things about this place too. Mudchute park in the summer, watching the sun set behind the City skyline from the Thames Path, the evening glint of the lights from Canary Wharf. Like most streets and neighbourhoods, in London, it was a place of gradients and contrasts.

These gradients and contrasts came to me that day, when the three suitcases and two bags I was carrying, forced me to quickly abandon any thoughts of braving the bus and the Jubilee + Piccadilly Line combo to get to Heathrow. The only other way to get to Heathrow is by car and unfortunately, when you live on the east side of London, this means traversing the whole of Central London bang right through the center. Nice for sightseeing, but an utter traffic hellscape otherwise.

The Isle of Dogs is a tongue-shaped peninsula around which the Thames meanders - until Gravesend in the East and through the City of London, through Putney and Richmond, all the way to the source somewhere in the hills in the middle of England (Gloucestershire perhaps? One would need to search engine that - don’t take my word for it!) to the West. A few decades ago it was mostly an industrial area, bearing the legacy of the shipping industry that is still present in many of the placenames (Canary Whard, Millwall, Island Gardens, Docklands etc), but now it’s proximity to Canary Wharf has caused an explosion of high-rise housebuilding. These glass-and-steel skyborne investment accounts for what one assumes are mostly foreign investors are dotting the landscape like, to borrow Tennessee Williams, “warty overgrowths” on an already tightly-fit piece of land.

It is here that our journey west starts, on Westferry Road - one of the main roads circumnavigating the Isle of Dogs peninsula. Driving from the southern tip of the Isle to the north, one encounters a brief interlude of steel-and-glass splendour, the kind of place that wants to look and smell like money, not just any kind of money, but new money, rapid money, the kind of funny money that people talk about when they talk about derivatives and futures and CDOs. Canary Wharf is an island within an island. Behind the checkpoint is the London home of JP Morgan, Citi, HSBC and other moguls of our new Gilded Age of financialisation as well as the restaurants and shops that service the workers and clientele of these firms.

The car does a quick spin around Westferry Circus - the roundabout that controls the entry and exit to the Wharf and off we are into the less clinically rich parts of East London - Limehouse, Mile End and Bow. The landscape changes from steel and glass to weatherworn brick, stone and wood. The birthplace of Clem Attlee’s particular brand of socialism.

We dip into the Limehouse Link and emerge on the other side at the entrace of St. Katharine’s and Wapping, the neighbourhood in the shadow of another square mile of steel-and-glasss glamour: the City of London. The brick buildings of the 1960s and 1970s are interspersed with building sites bearing colourful banners with slogans like “New luxury buildings - visit our showroom to find out more”. One wonders if all this zeal for building might not be better spent building good quality affordable housing, but alas.

Already our eyes are watching god, the god of money, for whom his disciples and Savile row-suited priests have comissioned one gleaming monument after another.

Then the journey continues, onwards to Aldgate, past the prestigious barrister’s offices at Cannon Street and the little posh cafes where lumbersexual baristas serve specialty coffee to suited financiers in a curious melange of the hipster and corporate. After a bout of traffic, we emerge on Victoria Embankment - Temple, Somerset House - the splendour of the old Establishment erupts into full view and carries us all the way to Westminster.

On the north bank of the Thames reside the regal bastions of hierarchy and colonialism, on the south the emerging grunge-meets-capitalism of Tate Modern, the Southbank Center, the brutalistic IBM building and then the darling: London Eye.

After Whitehall and Westminster, a quick dip into poshier than posh St James and Piccadilly, where awe-struck tourists gaze at displays of caviar, Dom Perignon and luxury jams while walking over sleeping bags of homeless Londoners. We pass the Wolseley and the Ritz and the Green Park Undergound station and zoom towards more glitz and glamour: South Kensington, Hyde Park and Prince Albert’s monument and then, then of course, Knightsbridge and Harrods, where very well deserved executive compensations are used to finance the acquisition of Hermes scarves and Prada bags.

We drive past and onwards, leaving behind the shoppers and those less fortunate they are furiously trying to ignore, traversing through a landscape that morphs from a capitalist wasteland to a capitalist wonderland and back again.