I love seeing the dirty underbellies of foreign cities. I don’t like crowds, I don’t particularly enjoy monuments or famous sights, and I’m cheap. All of this makes me especially amenable to places others might not end up, like living in an old soviet bloc apartment building filled with Chinese pensioners in Shanghai, or deep in one of the few remaining warrens of hutongs in Beijing. This summer, I’m in London. For me, “London” has always evoked images of castles, wide public squares, and gigantic statues of men on horseback, all of which I found in and around Trafalgar Square this past Saturday afternoon.
But to get to that London, I have to travel nearly an hour on the 172 bus, crossing the River Thames and skirting several areas that can be best described as sketchy. I’m staying in southeast London with Heinrich, a good friend from college who is finishing his Ph.D. in composition. Like all self-respecting graduate students, he’s broke, and the place he rents is in a pleasant working class neighborhood filled mainly with Caribbean and West African immigrants, along with students and artists of all varieties.
Far from the columned grandeur of central London, the main streets in Brockley are lined with jerk chicken joints and fly-by-night shops that sell colorful clothing and fruit that spills out onto the sidewalk. The nearby Deptford Market reminds me vividly of the Shanghainese street markets, with people hocking plastic bowls and slippers and underwear and all manner of household goods, all from folding tables that disappear come five o’clock.
Ostensibly, I’m here to work on an opera I'm writing with Heinrich. I’m the literary half and he’s the musical genius. So far I’ve been much too fascinated with the city itself for us to make much headway. But after seeing Berg’s ghastly but glorious Lulu at the Royal Opera House—where, in true European Union style, we sat behind a German couple who chuckled at the fantastic soprano’s Swedish accent—I think we may have gotten the inspiration to dig in. Details of our collaboration (or potentially disastrous attempt at it) and my travels in and around the city to follow. --EG