It’s mid-summer in London.
We are shooting up a steel-ribbed cage inside a glittering icicle of glass called very simply, 'The Shard'. There is not even a wobble as we climb from ground level to the 68th floor. You don’t even have to say 'Beam me up, Bro!' It’s like going up the Matterhorn in a rocket. It’s the highest building in Western Europe. Except that this is in the very heart of London’s oldest district. The white dome of St. Paul’s looms modestly in one direction; the Tower of London sits in a grey huddle; and the famous bridges of Westminster and the Tower Bridge cut across the River Thames as it snakes its way through the city. No wonder that Prince Charles, an arch conservationist, called it a shard of steel plunged into the fabric of London’s hallowed past.
Once you are there all the controversies are forgotten. At the very top of the glass pinnacle you feel you can soar bird-like over the city. The winds whistle through the viewing platform from giant vertical louvers of sheer glass held together with massive white painted cables. It’s raining on one side, the Sun is out on the other. The whole world is there. Or so it seems, to gape and gasp at City of London spread out like a sheet of history in every direction. It’s a city re-invented by technology and the imaginative vision of the architect Renzo Piano with the sky as his companion.
Then again, when you look down, it’s Shakespearean England and Tudor England that catch the eye, with the Globe Theatre nearby, the markets and gardens that are still there. You look down towards the Tower Bridge outlined in blue and you can even see the infamous Water Gate through which Anne Boleyn and all those like her, condemned to the executioner’s chopping block, were secretly rowed through the grim tunnel flowing from the River Thames into the prison’s entrails.
In the matchless words of William Wordsworth, who stood similarly entranced on the Westminster Bridge in the distant days of September 1802, there is grandeur about London that is strangely intimate. Or to quote from his poem, 'Upon Westminster Bridge', he murmurs 'This City doth like a garment wear/the beauty of the morning; silent, bare, /Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie. /Open unto the fields and to the sky/All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.'
In a city that has become a gigantic theme park the Shard is the latest attraction. Not that it’s cheap getting there. It costs 30 pounds to go up. Once you are on the top of the 72nd floor you find yourself surrounded by China. The majority of tourists appear to be Chinese. They chatter in Chinese and pose with each other in Chinese. They monopolise the telescopes that allow you to zoom in and check what someone is having for lunch on the South Bank. Fish and chips, they decide.
'Would you say that 90 per cent of the visitors are Chinese?' I ask the guards. 'Wouldn’t like to say that,' he replies, 'but yes, they come here and want to know how the Shard compares to their own high-rise buildings.'
'Where have all the Indian tourists gone?' I wonder.
If at all they are here, it’s to take a look at the Kohinoor and wipe a tear for the glory that has fled to the Tower of London. The underground, the Museums, the Kew Gardens are full of ancient tourists from the US, mid-West most probably. One desiccated American man holds his equally elderly wife by her age-freckled claw and whispers, 'Oh my golden girl, my bride,' across the aisle on the Piccadilly Line. On the London Underground you can watch the whole of humanity ride by.
Tattooed men from South America, large families fleeing from cash-strapped Spain are on the line; Italians and Greeks who gorge on pasta at Carluccios, the branded Italian chain that sells the biggest meringues ever; Arab families who rifle through the lingerie departments of Harrods, looking for the latest in lacy thongs; while gorgeous looking women from the Far East pamper their already beautiful complexions with the latest in beauty products and spray the air with perfume. Of Indians there is no sign. We are not talking here of Wembley and purveyors of Chicken Tikka masala, but of those well-heeled Indians who used to head for Ascot and Wimbledon. Of course, it’s quite unlikely that I would not bump into them in the London Metro, my Oyster card in hand.
The Oyster card is part of the electronic magic that makes navigating London such a breeze. Once you’ve paid for it, you swipe the card casually to enter every train or bus. There are even Harry Potter effects as you ride the escalators and the framed ads on the walls come to life and wink at you, asking you to take a swig of Pimms. The downside is that no one talks to you. At the massive British Airways terminal you have to use a touch screen to get your own boarding pass and you can’t argue about whether you want an aisle or a window seat.
A young man of colour sitting across from me in the Underground broke the rule by starting a rant with a German boy sitting next to me. The coloured man wore glasses, so you could not tell whether he was laughing, or drunk.
'You know Hitler?' He asked. 'He had a son, did you know that? No, you Germans don’t know nothing. He had a son and he called him Pitler and when he had a daughter, she was named Titler!'
'Do you know why I wear dark glasses? It’s coz I hanged Saddam Hussein and the Muslims are after me. Are you a Muslim lady ma’am?' he asked me politely. The whole compartment froze as the 'M' word hung in the air. We were after all Asians, my companion and me.
'Sorry, sorry,' said the German. 'I apologise to you if you are Muslims.'
We laughed. 'Indians!' we said. The whole compartment laughed.
London can be like that.