We check in and take an Emperor suite on the 1st floor. I neck the two free bottles of mineral water and check the bathroom for free shampoo. A curtain covers one side of our room. Behind it is wall. It’s an unexpected illusion. I check the trouser press and miniature ironing board, but they’re real. In the corner, the curtain reveals a small window looking out onto a courtyard filled with gym equipment. It’s a slow time of day for health Nazis, but there are three racing snakes in leggings guzzling mineral water from plastic bottles shaped like donuts. Water is everywhere and so, it seems now, is juice. Every hundred yards or so someone is pulping or squeezing or grinding some fruit and flogging the contents to thirsty Londoners. People would have fed the nearest pot plant if you’d tried to dole out grapefruit juice five years ago. Now, they’re bolting it down as if it holds the key to eternal youth.
We walk to Millennium Bridge, framing St Paul’s and Tate Modern between thumbs and forefingers, the way people think serious photographers do. The Thames is choppy; the kind of all-purpose grey I’d mix in art class to fill in boring buildings like town halls and libraries. We head for the South Bank. A Serbian with an Elvis haircut is grilling sausages. He’s using a hot plate that’s been rescued from a Crimean field kitchen. Fried onions compete with a rank, tallow stench. A dirty, crumpled box at his feet has ‘Super Economy Sausages’ printed on it. His chef’s outfit comprises oatmeal slacks and a slim-fit nylon tracksuit top with the legend Sports Boy on it. The Serbian pulls a fag from behind his ear, lights it and puffs over the hotplate. He glances left, then right. Two cops approach.
‘Got a trader’s license?’ chunky cop says.
Chunky cop wears a watch the size of a brick. It’s a showy attempt to steer conversations towards his love of triathlon and cage-fighting. The Serbian smiles nervously.
‘Got a trader’s license?’ chunky cop repeats.
‘Traders like scents,’ the Serb says. He nods sagely.
‘No. Trader’s license,’ the cop repeats.
‘You like New York cops,’ the Serb says, ‘I see you on TV. Good.’
This conversation descends into mime.
Further along the South Bank there are trees with red and white spotted cloths wrapped round them – the pattern of toadstools in children’s fairy tales. Each white spot has a name, sometimes several, scribbled on it in black marker. Because the cloth is ultra-absorbent or the marker has almost run out you can barely read the names. It takes me seven seconds to find a scribbled penis and hairy balls.
A crowd has assembled to watch skateboarders under the Festival Hall. It’s plastered with graffiti. Names and symbols are daubed in vivid orange, fluorescent yellows and greens and electric blue so you can no longer read or see anything. It looks like one of those horrid balls people used to make out of two million elastic bands. Wherever I’ve watched skateboarding around the world it always seems to consist of three things done badly. They go up and down ramps, flick the board through 360, or slide along a railing. But most of the time they just fall off. Skaters are called Justin or Felix but they prefer to call themselves ‘Death’ or ‘Vertical’ They wear sock hats on the hottest day of the year and black jeans with waist sizes that’d make a supermodel reach for the laxatives. When they’re 21 they’ll buy a suit, get a haircut and become your boss.
On the tube I’m forced to stand next to two French students, skinny enough to wear cardigans and tapered jeans. They click their fingers, tap their feet and sing ‘Mind the Gap’ repeatedly. They wear scarves despite the heat. We get off at South Kensington and take the long, tiled tunnel to the museums. A Japanese guy wearing a dinner jacket and jeans is sitting by the entrance to the Victoria & Albert Museum playing classical guitar on a camping stool. The stool is the steel-legged type endured on British camping trips. The Japanese guy keeps playing the theme to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. It’ll be interesting if he pitches outside the Imperial War Museum. Beside him a man in silk waistcoat, jet black bowler and mustard pin-stripes jigs on the spot. He has a peppery moustache and looks as if he’s mislaid his umbrella or spoons. This Music Hall tribute is spoiled by the can of cider he clutches between marbled sausage-like fingers. Anywhere else in Britain this man would be dressed in jogging bottoms and patent leather slip-ons, pushing a shopping trolley with a broken TV in it. In Kensington the local tramp is dressed like Prince Albert’s valet. The guy at the V&A security desk checks our bags for explosives and nail scissors.
Museums are full of people taking endless photos destined to rot on discs and hard drives because of poor exposure or red eye. They’re justifying their afternoon and trying to bottle culture. One man in his forties balances a sketchpad on his leather man-bag and draws a sculpture of Neptune. At Neptune’s feet is the sea nymph Triton, better known to most people as a maker of affordable bathroom shower units. If you grew up in the Midlands you’d know Triton as a shower manufacturer and past sponsor of Birmingham City FC. You see, culture gets everywhere.