Leaving Peckham, or An Attempt at Tourism in London

“We don’t care about no government warning / about that promotion of the simple life and the dams they are building”

-Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha” from the album When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)

Roehampton University

I went to London to see Marx’s grave. Well, I accompanied my girlfriend to a conference on the works of Hanif Kureishi at Roehampton University, but I went to see Marx’s grave. It was the one thing I wanted to do while in London. I was determined to see the man’s headstone. That’s it. That was my one touristy thing. It’s because I hate London. All I want is clouds, drizzling rain, fog, fish, chips, pub beer, and double-decker buses; but every damn time I go to London I get unseasonably warm weather, lost trying to find the bus stop, and really expensive food. The worst part is that no one speaks English in London. We just came from Rome, and I felt more comfortable with Italian. At the very least I can say, “Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano,” flutter my blue eyes and look utterly charming in my ignorance. Or in Germany, where I was staying with my gf, if I try hard enough, then I can catch most of what the Germans are saying. But when you can’t understand someone in London, you cannot utter “I’m sorry, I don’t speak London-ese” and flutter your eyes. You might get punched.

Well, maybe it didn’t help that we were staying in Peckham—named by the New York Times as one of the “poorer sections of London” and, recently, the scene of the August 2011 London riots—where very little English is spoken. One of my former students spoke over six African languages. He told me that English was the toughest language he has ever learned. Maybe it would have been easier for me to try to learn a few kind words in one of the over 500 Nigerian dialects, instead of looking dumb and asking where to buy a bus pass from the bulging woman in a small shop who was diligently guarding the sacks of rice at her feet.

She came to the door in what seemed a massive effort on her part…

…and pointed behind me in the direction of what seemed a thousand different shops, internet cafes, fruit stands, hair salons, sports gambling casinos, money wiring centers, wig stores, African travel bureaus, and then became instantly frustrated by the direction of my gaze. She exited the shop and came very close to taking my hand, as you would out of frustration with a child who doesn’t see what you see, but she just kept pointing as she walked. Luckily, not more than five steps in the direction she had pointed, we found someone who spoke English (or the South London version at least) who pointed at the blue sign of a Newscafe, and told me to go there for a bus pass. I turned around to thank the woman, but she was already back in the small shop. The other woman gave me a confident glance one gives an outsider who has finally found his or her way, and I made my way to the Newscafe to get my Oyster card—London’s plastic, refillable travel card that I was now convinced was better than finding a bus pass each time I needed a ride.

I’m not completely ignorant. I don’t normally walk into small shops with 20 pound bags of rice, flour, and sugar on the floor, and a large woman in traditional African garb guarding them, and ask for a bus pass. It was out of sheer frustration that I asked her in the first place. The first person I asked, a bus driver with a clear cockney accent, whom I found at what appeared to be the Peckham bus station, told me to go to a “cornershop”.

Cornershop - Brimful of Asha DSC_9203

Cornershop – Brimful of Asha DSC_9203 (Photo credit: Plashing Vole)

God help my postmodern mind, but I could only sing the chorus to “Brimful of Asha” after hearing that word, and I forgot how purposeless my journey was becoming. What the hell is a cornershop? Well, anyway, I walked across the street and into a shop on the corner selling newspapers, packages of 19 different curries, fake plastic helicopters, “crisps,” gum, and lottery tickets—my logical definition of a “cornershop”. They were all out of bus passes. Yes, that’s an answer someone can give you in south London. I stood in line at the next shop, one corner down. This place had even more plastic crap on the walls, but fewer packages of curry. Maybe only 15 varieties this time. No bus passes. Try across the street. I must have crossed that street at least four times (back and forth, back and forth) dodging buses as tall as my home in the states—the very ones I should have been traveling inside—and cars that seemed to only come up to my waist.

I didn’t really know where to go. Well, not for a bus pass. I did have options though. I could have sent money to Nigeria or Ghana, if I knew anyone there. I could have purchased a very cheap flight to Cameroon. I could have purchased a rack of lamb and a package of that delicious looking curry. Or I could have gambled on a football team. It was out of desperation that I found the woman with the bulk bags of rice at her feet. I find that when lost, one should rely on middle-aged, heavy-set women for directions and guidance. Maybe because you get a dose of sympathy with that extended finger. At every shop before her, there was a man. And that man wouldn’t budge from behind his aerial perch where the counter was at my eye level. He couldn’t be bothered by this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-Swedish-American fool from the Midwest who was now stuck in south London trying desperately to get to Marx’s north London grave and say something profound, yet make it back in time to meet his girlfriend in front of the Peckham library before dinner. But this woman left her shop. She lumbered off of her stool, walked into the street with me, and made sure I got somewhere I wanted, or to someone who would help me.

It was nearly 3pm by the time I got to Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery East. I had to be back to Peckham by 3:30 so as to not worry my girlfriend, or leave her stranded as the only white woman in front of Peckham library not whizzing by on a bicycle, but it had taken me nearly three hours to get to Marx’s grave. I didn’t hurry though. With no phone or email access there wasn’t much I could do about it now. It seemed pointless to turn around without reaching my destination.

Marx’s grave is around a slight southern bend in the main road heading east. Although, you don’t really notice the bend; instead, one only notices the enormous and ostentatious bust of the man himself facing north.

The bust stands on the top of a nearly 6-foot tall, by nearly 4-foot wide rectangular, grey monument. If that same bust wasn’t printed on the map I purchased for £1 or the numerous brochures in the ticket office, I don’t think I would have missed its stature. Standing next to it with my 6’3” frame, I almost felt like giving it a big bear hug—if such a gesture was socially acceptable. To my surprise, there were a few roses lovingly placed near the base, and a white envelope and card bearing a single dove of peace. It felt odd that I hadn’t brought any trinkets as sacrifice.

In fact, I found that I did not have as much to say to the ginormous bust of Marx as I thought I would when I began this quixotic journey. As I was High Barnet bound on the London’s Northern tube line, I tried to remember pithy quotes from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on a saucy conversation between two Londoners wearing riding breeches and carrying equestrian helmets who were talking about getting “pissed” the night before a ride. Even though I had once spent hours underlining The Marx-Engels Reader for my Marxist Cultural Theory course two spring semesters ago, I couldn’t remember anything the man wrote. So when I arrived, I blundered and said the following while recording a quick video on my iPhone: “Well, (sigh) your dead and I’m alive. What you said and wrote may have meant something, but we all die in the end.” God! What tripe! And after all the crap I went through! It sounded like something a less-poetic, plebeian Nietzsche would say at Marx’s grave (”Also denn, Sie sind tot…”). But that was the only thing I could think to say.

Maybe I could only say those words because that bastard Marx was staring down at me like all those shop keepers who could not be bothered to come down and point me in the direction of where to buy a bus pass, or how in the hell to get across London. Maybe it was just Fight Club’s Marla Singer and her rational justification for stealing food from the elderly echoing throughout my postmodern brain: “Tragically, they’re dead. I’m alive and I’m in poverty. You want any?” Whatever it was, I wanted to be with the living at that moment and not with the dead.

Elephant and Castle, London

So, after fifteen gloriously morbid minutes with Marx, I left Highgate Cemetery East and headed back home to south London. The tube ride seemed faster this time and when boarding the #12 bus from London’s Elephant & Castle station to Peckham, I received a much headed lesson in capitalism: my Oyster card was empty. Actually it was negative £.50, and the bus driver would not let me on. I must have been an example for all the hundreds of London kids in plaid skirts and knee-high socks, carrying books and cell phones, trying to worm their way past him. I pleaded with the driver with my heavy Midwestern accent through the outline of hexagonal holes in the thick glass, trying to delay some inevitable judgment until he would finally give in and let me on. But he wouldn’t budge. I offered a £5, but he couldn’t make change—what exactly was this man’s function if not to extend a gentlemanly olive branch and let pitiable, earnest tourists on their bus in a time of need? No such luck. Reluctantly, I got off the bus and back into the crowd. I made my way back to the tube station and “topped-up” my card with £5—just enough to get me on the next #12 and out of this madness.

Coaster from Peckham apt.

The bus ride was quiet. I sat adjacent to the stairway on the upper level of the double-decker and checked my watch every 2-3 minutes. I knew she wouldn’t be mad, but I knew she would worry. I arrived at the library square, but I didn’t see her anywhere. I walked the quarter-mile concrete path hurriedly toward our second floor apartment, passing a dozen other various brick townhouses espousing the very picture of British similitude—excluding the variety of colored entry doors. When I arrived, I played my role of Romeo well—yelling up at the open window, probably interrupting some local resident’s peaceful lamb curry dinner—but to no avail. My Juliet was elsewhere. Halfway back to the library, I saw her dark purple coat in the distance walking toward me. She stopped, placed both her hands on her chest and, with a sigh, mouthed the words only a woman of Croatian-German Catholic descent would in this situation: “Oh, thank God…” We embraced like two refugee lovers, and agreed never to part again during our time together.

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One thought on “Leaving Peckham, or An Attempt at Tourism in London

  1. You and I must have the same travel genes. I have very distinct memories of being eye-level with the counter of a corner shop. Thank goodness I had friends in town to help me navigate the oyster card, tube, bus situation.

    I’m not sure I’d know what to say to Marx, given the chance, either. “I hope you’re happy now,” “You made quite a mess,” “sorry the whole communism thing didn’t work out for you,” or “are you sure you don’t have a brain tumour?”.

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