Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Silent City

There is something unsettling about a normally bustling street that's empty at noon. You feel a certain wrongness in the air and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as unseen eyes watch you. When wandering through a whole neighbourhood of such streets, it feels almost apocalyptic, as though some horrible fate has befallen the rest of the world and you're the sole survivor.

You wouldn't think you'd find many places in this country like this; maybe an abandoned mining village in the welsh valleys or a slum in some northern city, but the last place you would probably look is probably right in the heart of London. Yet that is what you will find if you come into the Square Mile at the weekend.

During the week the City of London buzzes from dawn through dusk and on into the night. In the day the streets are filled with traders and brokers rushing from one office to another, people clogging up pubs and sandwich bars and newspaper stalls manned with men calling "Staana" every few seconds. Construction sites are hives of activity as the latest carbuncles are built on the city horizon. Buses and taxis add to the general chaos as they battle to get along the roads as quickly as possible. After the offices close the focus switches to the pubs and restaurants and later on to the clubs before a precious few hours of peace and quiet are snatched before the cycle begins again as the sun rises.

Once Saturday morning comes round, though, it's as if the City has put on a subtly different mask. The buildings are all the same but their windows are a shade too dark. Sounds are muted while footsteps echo. Sunlight seems yellowed and warmer and yet somehow also more remote. The main roads are still busy, of course, with the buses running through and cars driving around just because they can do so without paying for the privilege but this sense of normality just serves to highlight the abnormality of the areas in between. If you lose yourself in the warren of narrow streets and alleys between Bishopsgate and Bank, around the NatWest Tower and the Stock Exchange, it is easy to believe that you could walk for hours without coming across any sign of life. You almost expect to see tumbleweeds bowling past you and hear distant coyote howls on the breeze.

The atmosphere is different, too. The sense of haste you feel from Monday to Friday is missing and this gives you the freedom to meander about taking the time to look more closely at what surrounds you. This, in turn, brings to the fore things you've never noticed before; an interesting historical detail, maybe, or an odd little courtyard tucked out of site between towering office buildings.

If you look more carefully, though, you will see that it's not completely lifeless after all. Every now and then a bus will stop and disgorge somebody who's willing to sacrifice their weekend in the name of overtime, looking uncomfortable wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of the normal suit and tie. Security guards glance away from their televisions as you walk past the door in the vain hope you might actually want to bring a little interest into their day by going in. Tourists stray into the area thinking they know a shortcut from the Tower to Liverpool St without going underground. All of this, though, ends up merely accenting the general silence of the city in its slumber.

So the next time you find yourself on a tube train running beneath the streets of the square mile on a Sunday morning, why not get out and have a look around? Let me know if you see what I mean.

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