Saturday, 11 April 2009

In the Belly of the Wounded Beast

It's three o'clock in the afternoon and I'm in Canary Wharf, the financial heart of London. I'm on my way to collect my last car of the day, a Honda Civic, from a publishing company in Heron's Quay, a five minute walk from Canary Wharf station.

On a building to my right a scrolling display gives the latest prices of various stocks and shares with an arrow after each one. Today most of the arrows are pointing downwards.

All around are arrestingly tall, glass fronted towers. In the reception area of one of these I can see a large screen, tuned into some news channel, showing the headline 'RBS to lose 9000 jobs.' On the wall outside the next one a surveillance camera points down at the street. But a notice next to it states that it is the property of Lehman Brothers, so I guess no-one is watching now.

Lined up along the street outside these buildings is a row of gleaming Mercedes in black or silver, with a patient chauffeur waiting behind the wheel of each one - symbols of seemingly unassailable power juxtaposed with signs of a crisis that is stubbornly refusing to bottom out.

I find the publishing firm. The Honda is parked outside and is covered in a layer of dirt and dust of the thickness that one would normally associate with a vehicle that has stood untouched in someone’s garage for several decades.

It turns out that it has only stood here since Christmas, but this is long enough for the battery to have died a quiet, unnoticed death, and I am now stuck here until a breakdown service can be sent out.

To pass the time I walk back towards the station and then head down into the shopping centre that lies beneath it, which seems to be composed mainly of over-priced coffee shops, interspersed with upmarket, designer goods stores. There are no groups of teenagers hanging around here, no crying kids in pushchairs, no doggedly shuffling pensioners. It is just the same smartly dressed, serious-faced men and women as on the streets above. The place feels skin-crawlingly sanitised and Stepfordish.

My controller phones to tell me that the breakdown service will be here by about four.

'Four o'clock? Ok then mate, cheers,' I reply, thinking even as I say the words that they sound too laid back for a place like this. I feel as if I ought to be shouting -

'Four o'clock? But I'll be bankrupt by then!'

I start to head back to the car. At the exit from the shopping centre there are three sets of glass double doors set into a thick glass wall. I approach the middle ones, and as I do so I can see a woman approaching the same set from the other side. She is perhaps in her thirties and is wearing a light pink jacket. I don't notice what else she has on. There is no-one else around at the moment. I reach the doors slightly before her, and hold the right one open for her. I would have done the same thing for a guy, and would expect some token sign of gratitude, although I'm not especially looking for any, which is just as well as she ignores me and pushes the left door open instead. I turn to look directly at her and she smiles a touch sheepishly and then hurries away.

I make my way back up to street level and spend a few minutes trying to get a picture of the scrolling share display when all the arrows are pointing down. I eventually succeed, only to find that the resolution isn't good enough to show it.


I can't remember the last time I enjoyed feeling out of place anywhere, but I think I could happily amble around here all day, holding doors open for people who would rather I didn't, and having provocatively relaxed conversations on my phone.

But time is getting on and so I return to the Honda which, despite being dusty and neglected, will probably prove easier to resuscitate than some of the institutions that inhabit this absurdly prestigious place.

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