City Shutdown

Piccadilly Circus on Christmas Day. By Justin Bramwell of the BBC

I wouldn’t have imagined that it would be possible for the capital city of a supposedly liberal Western democracy to completely shut down, even if it were for a day. The extent to which London shut down yesterday on account of Christmas proved me wrong, and the only parallels I could think of were Bangalore on the day after Rajkumar died in 2006, and Gurgaon on the day of Holi in 2009.

Considering that the latter two instances were essentially a response and a pre-emptive response to hooliganism, I was surprised to see London reach the same levels of shut down on an otherwise peaceful day.

There were no shops open through the day. A handful of restaurants were open, but only for those with reservations. A pub (short for “public house”) close to home had a signboard saying “for reservations only. Not open for public”. Most other pubs and restaurants were shut.

Even the small versions of large chain-stores that open from early morning to late night on most days were shut. So were the mom-and-pop stores that are “off-license” and hence not subject to Sunday trading restrictions (another irritating thing I find about Europe, coming from India where Sunday is the busiest day for shopping). Public transport wasn’t running. There wasn’t much private transport either – the streets were mostly empty. I didn’t pass by many medical shops but those too weren’t open.

Thankfully we realised that the shutdown was impending – I don’t really know how we realised, but by Monday it was clear that yesterday wouldn’t be a “normal day”. We duly stocked up on all essentials and non-essentials, especially given we have houseguests. The kids wanted to go to the park in the afternoon, and we weren’t sure if that would be open either (it was). A lone Starbucks in the area was open and it did brisk business.

I don’t know if there’s regulation that states that stores ought to close on Christmas in London (given “sunday trading rules”, I wouldn’t rule that out). To me this shut down illustrates the fragility of a city with one very dominant culture (yes, London is multi-racial and multi-national, but curiously everyone shuts down on Christmas). While Bangalore, where I’m from, has few foreigners and is majority Hindu, there is some low-level multiculturalism in the city that means that the whole city doesn’t shut down on the same day (unless there are riots, that is).

It’s possibly because in India we have so many festivals that there is no one festival that is the “major festival” for everyone. So while people for whom the day is the major festival go on holiday, others for whom it isn’t that major a festival remain open for business and profit from the reduced competition. In some sense, establishments “take turns to go on holiday”. Public transport runs (albeit at reduced levels) on these holidays.

Again, all of India isn’t like this. As I mentioned at the top of the post, Delhi virtually shuts down on the day of Holi – the result of one dominant culture in that city. Similarly, the memetic fitness of the Ganesha drowning event in Mumbai is so strong that that city shuts down on the drowning days as well  (again there’s an element of hooliganism present) – though not to the extent to which London shut down yesterday.

There are a few odd people in London who don’t shut down for Christmas, though. This one photographer from the BBC goes out every Christmas to chronicle the empty streets of London.

Oxford Circus. Source: BBC

 

A year of wiping arse near the Thames

So it’s been exactly one year and one day since we moved to London. Exactly one year ago (one day after we moved here), I wrote about why Brits talk so much about the weather.

The last one week has been among my most depressing in London. Between Tuesday and Friday, the only times I stepped out of home was to the store round the corner, for grocery shopping. The wife didn’t step out of home at all. The daughter accompanied me on one trip to the store. Between Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, there was a layer (or few) of snow on the ground, thanks to the Beast From The East.

This wasn’t the first time in life that I’d seen snow fall – that had occurred in early December when we were similarly snowed in one Sunday, and had run out of supplies.

This apart, another source of depression was the latitude – between early November and late January, it would get dark insanely early here – around 4pm or so. It would be especially cruel on weekends when we’d be home, to see it getting dark so early. I would take walks in the middle of work (I was working for a company then) to make sure I at least got to see some sun (or white clouds!).

Weather apart, one big insight about London after a year of living here is that it’s a massive sprawl. For example, I live in a 2-storey house, with a backyard at least 100 feet long. And this is typical of all the houses in my area. Roads curve around and have plenty of cul de sacs, giving most residential neighbourhood a suburban feel. Check out the satellite picture of my area here: 
Until I moved here last year, I had assumed that London is an “urban” and dense city, given what I’d seen in 2005 (when I’d stayed in South Kensington) and the fact that the city has great public transport and congestion charges. As it turns out, the neighbourhoods are really suburban and low density. Residential areas are really residential, and you need to go to your area’s “high street” if you need to shop.

In the suburbs, most people have cars, which they use fairly regularly – though not for commuting into the city. The area I live in, Ealing, for example, has brilliant public transport connections, but is fundamentally built for life with cars. We currently live in a 1880s house, but are soon moving to a more “urban” apartment in a building that used to be a pub.

London being a sprawl means that it takes a long time to get anywhere, unless you’re commuting directly in or out of town. Most tube connections are radial, which means that if you need to visit someone in another neighbourhood it can take a long time indeed. As a consequence, I’ve hardly met my friends here – with the one I’ve met most often it’s been at an average frequency of once in 2 months.

The other thing that’s intrigued me about London is the pubs – those in the middle of town are all mostly horribly crowded, while those in the suburbs are really nice and friendly. There’s this one place close to home where I go for my football matches, and where we once went for a Sunday roast (yes, pubs here offer baby high chairs!).

Other pubs in the area look inviting as well, and make me wonder why I don’t have “area friends” to go to them with!

Finally, coming to the title of this post, when we were house-hunting this time last year, one of the things I looked for was a house with a bidet or health faucet. We were told by the agents that such fixtures weren’t normal for rental housing in the UK. After we’d moved in, we asked our landlords if we could install a health faucet. Once again we got the same reply, and that we were free to install them as long as we took them away when we moved out.

So as it has happened, we haven’t really “washed arse in the Thames“!