Why Is London So Confusing?
If the Tokyo experience is lost in translation, then London’s is lost in confusion. Nothing functions as it should or is where you think it is.
Let’s start with the Thames, which meanders so much that in places the North side is further South than the South side. Then there are the hospitals, which aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Hammersmith’s is in White City, Charing Cross’s is in Hammersmith and the Chelsea is nowhere near – you get the idea.
So what about tubes? Hmm. To go South into the West End from King’s Cross you have to go North to Euston, except that Euston is actually West. Blackfriars is the only station that’s on both sides of the river, and as it’s also a main line you could end up at the coast if you’re not careful. Oh, and its trains are only half the length of the station platform so you could miss it even when you’re on time to catch it because you’re at the wrong end.
Try Baker Street underground instead; to exit the station you have to go downward to another platform going in a different direction, then back up and along yet another tunnel – and it’s really badly signposted, so you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Until recently you could drive right onto the platform at Paddington station, but now there’s no parking anywhere and they’ve separated rail and tube lines so that connections are a nightmare. Try getting out of Waterloo Station at the right exit, or escaping from Liverpool Street, which is signposted by street names. The former is a once elegant terminus now ruined with clutter, the latter is a sensitive restoration with so many exits that you might as well roll a dice.
Some tube stations are so close together that it’s faster to walk. Others, like the one in Westminster, are ten minutes from the next station – if you believe Churchill’s tube trip in ‘Darkest Hour’. You’d think the war orders that turned street signs around to fool Nazi invasions and confuse everyone was still in place.
Tourists get very confused by London; apparently the most common mistakes are not standing on the right, mixing London Bridge with Tower Bridge and the Museum of London with the British Museum, and public drinking. Many laws are casually broken and the police don’t seem to mind (this is from an American survey, mind you they also complained about the lack of guns). We love Indian food and have things like pop-up urinals and Belisha beacons.
We also confuse just by being ourselves, it seems. We place tags on our sentences; ‘isn’t it?’, ‘didn’t we?’ etc., and ask each other if they’re all right. We’re cool to strangers until they prove themselves pro-actively friendly, we laugh a lot and often have an elaborate way of speaking. Plus, we mispronounce all our place names. No Londoner has ever eaten in an Angus Steak House or anywhere around Leicester Square.
Did I mention the culs-de-sac, canals and railway lines that isolate whole neighbourhoods? Try getting to Primrose Hill, Broadway Market, Stoke Newington, Muswell Hill, Ally Pally or Crouch End by public transport, or even on foot. Trying crossing Tuffnell Park without hitting endless dead ends.
How about Green Lanes, which isn’t named after a green lane and is only spoken of in the plural, even though it’s just one very long road, or the two Finsburys which are in different places, or the streets that continue across their ends and the house names that alternate except when new buildings have changed the numbering systems?
I once took a meeting with a group of power-suited Americans who arrived over an hour later because they had gone to two other streets with the same names. The best way to navigate is to use the names of pubs – although of course they’re not all still there, even though the names are still used.
London roads follow the lines of the original hedgerows and streams, and all efforts to change that system have ended in failure.
So come here and – in the nicest possible way – get lost.