If the endless moaning on the social media feeds were to be believed, we would be arriving in London in a blizzard of rain and hail. With this in mind, we pulled our jackets from our bags in the overhead compartment when the captain announced that he will soon be commencing descent. Later on the ground, ensconced in a sunlit carriage on the Paddington Express, we peeled off our layers in disbelief. It was summer in London, and the sun had come out to play.
It had been a long journey, but the warmth we felt from the hugs in KL airport were simply matched by the homecoming we had waiting for us at S’s childhood home. Blessed are we. As soon as we tumbled out of the black London cab with all our luggage, we saw Mum and Dad waving from the 2nd floor of the building, ready to strap us into our seats for a fine meal, simmering away at the ready on the stove. There was a lot to catch up on in between mouthfuls, periodically nipping into the bags to reveal Malaysian delicacies and souvenirs from New Zealand. Soon, we felt the onslaught of digestive processes, though not yet the stupor of jet lag – and I thought Mum’s suggestion for a walk around Little Venice was fabulous, especially since at 7pm, the sun was still up.
I have never been one to rave about London. In the 6 years that I lived in the south west of England, the capital was only ever a breezy 2 hour ride on the train. Yet I was never overcome by an urge to visit for the sake of it. My stays in London were always derived from some other occasion – a course, a concert, flying out, flying in,
Little Venice, though, was a part of London that I hadn’t been to before. What I saw on that first evening was a quaint little discovery that I tried to replicate and build upon almost everyday throughout our week’s stay.
In the place of gondolas actively patrolling the water ways, the vessels in the Little Venice of Maida Vale remained moored on either side of the canal. They were boat houses, rising no higher than one’s waist when he stands beside it on the embankment, and yet functioned as completely as an ordinary home, with cables and pipes plugged in for fresh water and electricity. Each boat house had a name, and was feverishly decorated according to the owner’s personal taste. More is more, and the adornments often spilled over onto the pavement, be they plants, flower pots, bicycles, stuffed toys or garden gnomes. Near the fence that separated the canal from the road, you would often see an outdoor table and a few rustic chairs set up, sometimes even a little shed and a watering can. Perhaps that part of the fence was owned by the boat owner, too, as more often than not, the plants that they grew would send out vines that intertwine the metal rails and spokes. Suncatchers and lucky charms would swing in the breeze.
We often walked through the area as dusk grew upon the water, sometimes as far out to the fairy-lit restaurants whose lively din carried across the breadth of the canal. It was a pretty shortcut in the mornings, when we headed out to Regent’s Park for some attempt at calisthenics. A couple of times, on leisurely afternoons, we’d look out at it from the terrace of Cafe Laville, sipping and sighing. I could not get enough of it.
Glass lanterns, broken tiles – long noon hours, nautical miles. Kittens prowling black as night – garden pixies in plain sight. Mirrors circle, mirrors square – la belle epoque, a love affair. Smoking chimneys, slanted blinds – dandelions to tell the time. Names in red, anchored fast – on the roof, the clouds roll past. Pansy dragons, beasts in stone – rowing through the dusk alone. Off-mounting, strolling through – the blackbird sings out, How do you do?
I was amazed that I had never been here before. But S, who grew up in this area, was just as mystified. His childhood memories of the area were not so brightly lacquered or gold gilt. The water, as he remembered it, was putrid, and the reputation for violence even more so. This used to be the hot bed of crimes borne from low socioeconomic circumstances, a far cry from a serene setting for an idyllic stroll. Off to the side of the canal, in a place named Paddington Basin, young, carefree Londoners laughed comfortably into the night, determined to have a good time in any of the trendy bars lit up with neon lights. S insisted that 10 years ago, hanging out here past sunset put you at a risk of getting shanked.
Little Venice cleans up real nice, under the steady gait of gentrification. Whether it was for the recent Olympics, or due to the bulldozing force of hiked real estate values, the grimy bits were eventually displaced, making way for a posh, hip, scintillating London. A romantic viewpoint would be to assume that the improvements were in line with the escalating quality of life for the original residents of the area – that there had been upward socioeconomic mobility resulting from better education, better healthcare, and better welfare. Sadly, the reality is much coarser, and the truth is that the residents were simply being priced out and moved further out of Central London, where the rent was not as formidable.
So we walked through the magic, and reminisced about the cauldron that it bubbled up from. And so our world changes. There’s a song in the air, right before we felt the first chilly evening breeze, and S looks up to the trees. “At least the blackbird still sounds the same.”