Bishopsgate, 23rd May 2022
It is half past three on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and I am sitting on the wide stone steps of the massive Eataly - a sort of Italian restaurant emporium - on Bishopsgate, a few hundred yards up from Liverpool Street station. Bishopsgate runs from Shoreditch in the east directly into the heart of the financial district of the City of London. It is a street of twelfth and thirteenth century churches, of skyscrapers and centuries old pubs, of fast food restaurants and banks, and the ubiquitous homeless population of London, congregating mostly around the station.
Bishopsgate is London in microcosm. The old and the new. The privileged and the lost.
I am not alone on these steps. Scattered on various levels about me, lone individuals stare into mobile phones whilst others simply gaze at the slow moving river of red double-decker London buses, black cabs, cyclists and the odd motorist that flows before us. One man with a white wizened beard reads a tatty paperback. I smile. One of my tribe.
Separating we people of the steps from the slow moving traffic is a raging torrent of people heading towards the station. Hundreds and hundreds passing by every minute. The tide is constant. And the tide is silent. No voices of dissent, of joy, of horror, of fear. No laughter, no shouting, not a word exchanged between anyone. There is simply walking. A to B. East to west.
A silent procession of human misery.
A human dray horse of a man with a ponytail and a look of utmost determination negotiates the traffic on his delivery cycle, six beer barrels sitting on a barrow attached to the front of his cycle, another barrow with six more trailing behind.
A family of four passes by - each wearing an identical black T-shirt with a photo of Andy Warhol on the front.
The wind noticeably rises and a momentary gap in both the traffic and the people opens up, like the parting of the Red Sea. A group of a half a dozen or so pigeons swoop down from the blue sky to within six feet of the ground, level out for twenty yards as if they had been waiting for this parting for the opportunity to do so, and soar into the ether once more.
Directly across from me - next door to the KFC - looking like it has been plucked straight from a Batman comic, is the concrete monstrosity that is the City Police Station. Parked in front of the building is a dark blue van with Police marked on the side in white letters. I am instantly put in mind of the bomb-laden truck, re-painted dark blue, parked outside of 99 Bishopsgate - just down the road from here - that exploded in 1993, courtesy of the IRA. The bomb destroyed the nearby St. Ethelburg’s church, smashed every window within five hundred yards and caused enormous damage to Liverpool Street Station. This particular IRA bombing came just a year after another IRA bomb blew the Baltic Exchange to bits on St. Mary Axe - two minutes walk from St. Ethelburga’s.
A bleached-blonde man with dark sunglasses, his hands sunk into the pockets of his jeans, stalks the bottom of the steps, looking up and down the street. He has the look of a man who is either waiting for an old friend he hasn’t seen since his schooldays or someone waiting to hand over the ransom money for the return of his children.
Just a couple of years before the Baltic Exchange bombing, I worked as an eighteen year old in the Our Price record shop on the corner of Bishopsgate and New Street - a few doors down from the KFC opposite. Our Price Records has long since played its last tune, and the once bright red frontage of the shop is now the lime green of some sort of sushi restaurant.
A thin, middle-aged man wearing a black fedora and too-tight jeans dodges between the buses and the cabs and the cars, and joins the raging river of silent humanity running past these steps.
The 205 to Paddington trundles past in the direction of Shoreditch, followed immediately by the 388 to Stratford.
A woman behind me screeches into her phone about how proud she is of her self-control. I smirk a little at the irony, and wonder what fate has provided in her life for this statement to be of such obvious consequence. All I hear on the other end of the phone in reply is a distorted wibble wibble, wibble. I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.
'TODAY IS MY DAY!' the woman screeches. I am unsure if this is into her phone still or if she has finally conceded she has no need whatever of any form of human iresponse and is simply screeching into the ether - or maybe at the pigeons.
I look to my left and the stalking man with bleached hair and sunglasses is gone. Reunited with an old friend or shovelled into the back of a white van with false plates never to be seen again? I guess I’ll never know.
A bus heading right, towards the City, sports an advertisement exclaiming :
WHAT BRITAIN REALLY THINKS with NICK FERRARI
Beside this somewhat hysterical statement is the rotund, reddened face of a somewhat hysterical middle-aged man whose career, I suspect, involves screeching both into the ether and at pigeons - no response required.
A man and a woman, I’m guessing in their mid thirties, perhaps of central American extraction, break away from the teeming crowd. The man stands at the bottom of the steps, just to the left of me, and strikes a pose of some significance. The woman obligingly aims her phone at him, and takes his photo as the raging torrent passes silently by them as if they were nothing but boulders in a stream.
The man and the woman rejoin the crowd, each staring blankly at their phones, three feet and not a single word between them.
I look behind me. The screeching woman has left. There are eight or nine of us still here. I’d like to think these steps contain the washed ashore, the driftwood, those of us in need of respite.
I know I must rejoin the raging torrent at some point, as must we all.
I breathe deep, and blow out my cheeks, as the traffic moves inexorably by and the raging torrent rages in silence.