Twenty years ago Jim and I moved to outer London so I could teach on exchange. All in all it was a most amazing experience, full of hard work and new experiences. Most importantly, the year brought us life long friends and the wonderful feeling that we had a second home halfway round the world.
This trip we chose to start our European trip in Essex, to rest in familiar territory while we recovered from the rigors of jet lag. If we managed to sandwich in real ales at the Golden Lion, share some dinners with friends and perhaps go into London to watch a show, so much the better.
As we wandered through the streets we once knew so well, I was struck by two things:
1. How immortal London feels. Old and tired in some places, but still immortal.
2. How much London has changed in the last twenty years.
One of the first things I noticed was colour. I’m not talking skin colour, London has been an international city for decades, maybe centuries. I remember the very first time we explored the heart of London some (egad!) 35 years ago, I had my ears pricked for “My Fair Lady” style accents. We rarely even heard English spoken, let alone a proper British accent.
I’m talking clothes. Twenty years ago I joined up with a group of 20-something girls who were going out of the town. I was absolutely astonished to see that they were all, with no exception, wearing black, all black, patterned only by white dots of various sizes. When I pointed this out to them, they didn’t think anything of it. Black was the normal colour back then. My mind reflected on my multitude of bright prints and bold colours that inhabited the trunk being shipped over from Vancouver and realized I was going to stand out like a neon thumb.
The shops hold a staggering variety of purples, reds, and blues. Even the ubiquitous sweet, little old ladies were wearing solid colours adorned with fancy prints. (Off side question: Why does England seem to have more sweet, little old ladies per capita than any other country in the world?). The blacks and greys are still there, mind you, but now there provide a background for brighter choices.
Next I noticed how bright the shopping areas had become. The troglodyte-like malls now have skylights, floor to ceiling glass walls and loads of white paint. The locals don’t really like the change. All that glass and chrome makes for so many echoes, the only conversation you can’t hear is your own. Besides that, the overhead is much greater (no pun intended) and thus prices are far higher than recession crippled English shoppers would like to stomach.
For me, the most favourable change I saw was the improved attitude toward gay people. Twenty years ago the word “gay” was always anchored with the dreaded word “AIDS” and seemed to be inseparable. Gay people were grudgingly accepted in theory but no one really seemed to know any gay people personally. If gay people were afraid to come out of the closet, there had to be a reason for it! I was of the opinion that London was decades behind Vancouver in this area.
I was wrong. Two decades later and London has almost caught up. Adverts both for and about gay people are all around. I even saw two men openly holding hands in Romford train station. Romford! Home of skin heads and the British equivalent of red necks. Romford! Best of all, the word “gay” is now linked with far more positive words, words like “son,” “wedding,” and “friend.”
Many things about immortal London, such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower, and Hyde Park, will hopefully never change, but I suppose the true key to immortality is the ability to adapt to the changing world and even continue to improve.