One of the things I wanted to do while I visited London was to go to a show. This isn’t the best time of year for tours, so the best I could find was a tribute band show: OutRage Against The Machine – UK’s Premier Rage Against the…, Nirvana UK, and FAKE NO MORE. By the time the second band took the stage, The Underworld Camden – a respected, below-ground music venue – was packed and everybody was having a great time.
I’m usually not into cover/tribute bands, but I have to admit, these guys were pretty impressive. Their hair, clothes, instruments, and of course, the music were very close to authentic.
They even subscribed to communism, just like the real-life Rage Against The Machine, as evidenced by the Che Guevara poster that you can see in the pre-show pic above. During their set, the singer said something that got a slight cheer from the crowd: “This next song goes out to anybody who supports Trump and Brexit. Ya’ll need to wake the [expletive] up!”
By itself, this comment is hilarious and it put a big smile on my face. It’s even more funny when you combine it with the prop they added later to the left side of the stage: an American flag with an anarchy symbol spray painted on it.
Like so many others who use the anarchy symbol, this band is very confused. Anarchy as a political philosophy simply means the absence of government. So, while they had an anti-government symbol on the stage, they announced their fondness for a giant, unelected, unaccountable, continental government – The European Union.
The tribute band was probably trying to somehow reference the chaos and vandalism that surrounds anti-capitalist protests like the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle or the mini-riot the real RATM started outside the New York Stock Exchange in 2000.
If that’s the kind of anarchy they were referencing – and I’m certain it was – then let me put it this way: this particular music venue was in a London neighborhood that looked like it had been subscribing to their philosophy of anarchy for a long time.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this area of London. Not because I forgot to take any pics, but because I literally didn’t feel safe pulling my phone out of my pocket to take pictures for fear of being mugged, and I certainly would never bring my DSLR camera here, either.
As an American, I’ve always been fed the images of Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the appeal of their surrounding areas (like the pics I posted recently). But the truth is, just like with New York City, London is a massive city with some pretty rough areas, and I’ve seen many of them while riding public transportation and going out at night.
It’s clear that the business owners are very afraid of being burglarized. After many businesses close, around 6pm, they block their entrances by pulling down thick, metal security shutters (very similar to the hurricane shutters that I saw while living in Florida). The streets were completely filled with potential customers. Up to 100 people walking past the front doors of businesses every minute, but the risk of being robbed was bigger than welcoming a mob of patrons.
Vandalism or Commissioned Art?
Sadly, the very same security shutters that protected their businesses were used as canvases by countless vandals. Utterly disgusting graffiti is absolutely plastered all over every single security shutter in this area of London. Apparently, no property owner is deemed innocent in the eyes of these criminally shameless individuals.
There is, however, a different kind of graffiti in London that was made famous by a UK native, probably the most well-known graffiti artist of all time – Banksy. The artwork is so fascinating and creative, it made me forget for a moment that it was vandalism. I had to stop walking so I could properly admire the work of true masters. I felt like I was in an outdoor art gallery. Unfortunately, it only took a few seconds to realize that some clown had actually tagged their pointless, pitiful graffiti on top of a magnificent painting. Some people have no remorse, no integrity. Especially in this part of town, these kinds of people are not considered graffiti artists. They’re seen as heretics.
Despite its allure, the honorable graffiti is still destruction of private property. Well, kind of. Apparently, some businesses will actually hire the good artists to paint something they can be proud to display on their store front. There isn’t really a way to tell by looking at them which artwork is authorized and which isn’t, though, so I chose to admire all of the great artwork and let the property owners sort the rest out.
The Other Side of London
Observing graffiti was only one of the things I experienced at night. On three of the four nights that I walked around London, I was asked for money, food, and a donation to a homeless shelter, which I assume was a plea to give to an actual homeless shelter, not a heartless scam.
While my host told me homelessness in London is an issue, I only saw one person that I can definitely say was homeless. As I walked through the pedestrian tunnel that goes under Park Lane, there he was. Or maybe he was a she, I’m not sure. Whoever it was, they were bundled up and still sleeping around 11am.
In the moment, I really fought myself on whether or not to take a picture of somebody in that situation. After careful thought, I justified it this way: I could use the pic to tell others about their story, if only a snippet of that story.
The Benefits of a Diverse Population
I paused for a moment of reflection and exited the pedestrian tunnel, which led to one of London’s many perfectly placed parks that accent one of the biggest cities in the world.
Similar to New York City, London seems to take pride in its diversity. My host (who really should moonlight as a tour guide!) pointed out a great example of this diversity as she and I did something epic that most UK residents take for granted everyday: we rode in the front seats on the upper level a double decker bus. Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim small businesses, all right next to each other. One street after another, filled with restaurants, food markets, and specialty shops from several different ethnic backgrounds. With small businesses like these, I’m sure the majority of their clientele lives within a few miles of their stores. Clearly, the people that live in this neighborhood are very tolerant of each other’s cultures and likely sample each other’s foods all the time. It’s so refreshing to see people from very different backgrounds co-exist peacefully.
Refreshing as it was, with my little peek inside now captured, my time in London came to a close. I looked around as my Uber driver took me to the train station where I’d be on to my next destination. Massive, new buildings were being built and remodeled right next to other behemoths. Next to some of them were churches that looked 500 hundred years old or more, then more modern buildings, then an extremely old castle belonging to the royal family, then more new construction. It truly is a unique city with many sides.
Power to the People or Power to the Elites?
My host wisely noted that this diverse city could be summed up with one scene, referenced by the pic below. On top, you see the queen’s name on a high-end performing arts hall along with a trendy restaurant and bar. Below, you can see kids skateboarding and hanging out next to more graffiti-laden walls. You can’t quite make it out, but those green fluorescent signs in the upper left hand corner of the pic say “POWER TO THE PEOPLE”.
And that’s exactly how I’ll remember this city. Part communist, part capitalist epicenter of the world; part disgusting graffiti, part innovative artwork; part royalty, part regular people. There’s a part of everything and everyone… in London.