Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. Having won the lottery, he proceeds to take advantage of his Day As by travelling around Europe, business class! His first stop? London… A London that is not at all as he expects.
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Chapter 6: London Burning
My first stop was London. I had always dreamed of visiting it, and it was just a 2-hour plane ride away. I got off the plane at Heathrow airport and took the subway, which they called the Tube, all the way downtown.
I stopped first at Buckingham Palace to witness the change of the guards, walked to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and visited Westminster Abbey, the spired cathedral rising from the center of London. I stopped to admire the cast-iron statue of Winston Churchill, a grumpy bulldog of a man who, according to my Lonely Planet, had said that he only drank three times a day: with lunch, with dinner, and in the moments in between.
Tacking north, I made my way to Piccadilly Circus, intent on walking up all of Oxford Street, the main shopping avenue. As I walked I started to think about how travelling alone was changing the way I was looking at things. Sure, I spent an immense amount of time marveling at the architecture and the history of the places. The fun tidbits I gathered from the Lonely Planet, such as the fact that Oliver Cromwell had been buried in Westminster Abbey (and then later disinterred and posthumously hanged) definitely made it more interesting. But after so many trips, and with the solitude of travelling alone, my focus was switching to something else.
I found myself looking more and more at the people. It was exactly the same as people watching from a café terrace with Hanaa, minus the fun company and imaginary conversations loaded with sexual innuendos.
How were people here different from the other places I had visited? What were they wearing? What was the mood? What was the energy of the place? I was trying to get a feel for the soul of the cities I was seeing, and I was discovering that the best way to do that was to observe their people.
Walking up Oxford circus was definitely not what I had expected. The city that in my mind had been posh and elegant was everything but. Its inhabitants had a sullen look as they walked with heavy steps, dressed in black, dreary trench coats and jackets. Stores with signs reading ‘Closing Sale’ and ‘Closed Indefinitely’ dotted the street. The sky ahead was gray and overhung. London felt like a city depressed.
I took the Tube to Greenwich, which to my utmost confusion was apparently pronounced ‘Grenich’, and sat down in the park on top of the hill above a few Indian youths playing cricket. I popped out my Kindle and started to look into the latest ‘The Economist’ for news on London and the UK. I was trying to understand why the city was so different from what I had expected.
It didn’t take me long to get the bigger picture. The Brexit had hit hard. When in 2016 the UK had decided to leave the European Union, no one had any idea what shape that would take. Over the next two years however, the political elite of the EU had made a choice: they would make an example of the UK. Hit it so hard that all other European countries would be terrified of leaving the Union. The free market had closed down and borders were tightened. The UK had suddenly lost access to its largest trading partner and now needed to deal with complex legislation and added taxes on every export. From one day to the next, all of Britain’s largest factories found that if they were planning to sell in the EU, they had to raise their prices by at least 10% for products like raw materials and agricultural produce, and up to 50% for luxury goods.
This accelerated a trend that had begun half a century ago under Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady: the deindustrialization of Britain. Companies based in the UK had made the only rational choice available to them, and moved manufacturing back inside the EU. Poland, Romania and Hungary had all become huge manufacturing hubs. In the space of a year, every major player from food giants Unilever and Associated British Foods, to pharmaceutical titans GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca had closed down factories leading to hundreds of thousands of unemployed Brits. Even Rolls Royce, the iconic British brand, moved final assembly to a manufacturing plant in Germany to avoid the 50% tax.
All over Britain, manufacturing towns I had never heard of such as Burnley, Derby, Telford and Sunderland had suddenly become ghost towns. Unemployment in the Northern Powerhouse belt had skyrocketed, hitting as high as 70%.
But the real damage had yet to strike. Not only were the UK’s exports falling as companies relocated, but taxation was happening the other way as well. Products became more expensive to import. The stockpile of foreign currencies that the UK’s central bank held dwindled, and it became harder and harder to maintain the parity of the pound. Eventually, in December 2018, it had crashed. Hard. From a value of 1.3 euros for a pound, it fell to 0.6. It eventually recovered to 0.8, but the final blow was dealt. The UK’s last advantage, its strong and reliable international currency, was now a liability. The banks started to leave.
I spent the late evening in The City, London’s financial district, and it was deserted. No raving parties in the high-end bars. HSBC, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Nomura, all had empty lobbies and beefed up security. Lloyds had ten guards standing outside, probably to prevent laid-off employees from protesting or making a scene.
Analysts predicted that as much as 90% of London’s financial workforce would disappear by the end of the year. Already, every week announced a new round of lay-offs. The beneficiary? Ireland. With its low taxes, attractive packages, English speaking population and its status as a key member of the EU, Dublin was shaping up to become the next financial hub. Real-estate groups were already scrambling to build skyscrapers in two designated areas on the outskirts of the city.
It was depressing. London was not at all as I had expected. Instead of a city that never sleeps, I had fallen into a town slowly sinking into shadowy depths. Not being able to deal with the City’s gloominess, I hailed down one of London’s signature black cabs.
I opened the door, and turned my head in surprise as the driver called out to me from the passenger seat. Right. They drive on the right.
“Where to mate?” asked the driver, a burly man with a thick grey mustache and a black cap pulled down tight over his eyes.
“Somewhere fun. Somewhere lively,” I said.
“Yeah, sure,” I sighed. I settled down in the seat as he drove. The streetlights turned on one by one, casting shadows that never moved on beautiful buildings and facades. The architecture gave off a feeling of power and strength much more imposing than that of the whimsical French style. It spoke volumes on the UK’s past power, back in an age when the sun had never set on the British Empire. The higher the rise, the harder the fall, I thought.
The cab came to a stop on Regent’s street. The cab driver pointed at a pub on the corner. “Best place in London right now mate,” he said. I stepped out and looked up. A large golden gilded sign read: ‘The Clachan’, and ‘1898’. A quick search in my Lonely Planet said it was one of London’s multiple Scottish bars.
And indeed it was. Although I prided myself on my mastery of English, with but a hint of a French accent thanks to repetitive viewings of American TV shows, it felt as if I had arrived in a foreign country. As soon as I stepped inside, my ears were filled with the deep, throaty and guttural sound of the Scottish English. I sat down at the crowded bar, and ordered a pint of a beer from a brand I had never heard of.
It took me 15 minutes of silent listening to even begin to make sense of their English, filled with rolled ‘R’s and a hot-potato-in-your-mouth speak. Most of them were Scots, and all of them were joyful and rowdy and laughed with full-chested guffaws. The difference in attitude with everything I had seen all day was so profound, I simply needed to know why. In an act that was completely out of character, but that would have made Hanaa proud, I suddenly reached out and tapped on the arm of a man with shoulders as wide as I was tall.
“Excuse me sir,” I asked, “Could I ask you a question?”
He turned around with the look of a man who had had a few too many. He stared at me with slightly unfocused blue eyes.
“Are ye French lad?”
I blushed. So much for how light I thought my accent was.
“LADS!” he shouted to his friends, “We’ve a Froggie amongst us tonight!”
He quickly made introductions. He and his two friends were all big, tall, intimidating bears of men. Craig, Ross, and the one to whom I had first talked to, Iain.
“What are ye drinkin’?” he asked. I pointed, and they all cheered and hooted. Lucky guess. “We’ll make a Scot outta ye yet!” he hollered, “Scotland’s finest!”
I smiled and nodded. We cheered and I took a big gulp alongside them. But whereas I emptied only an eighth of my pint, they had downed half of theirs. Before I knew it they were ordering yet another, and me with them.
“This round is on me!” I shouted, and they roared approval. Ah, the benefit of credit card charges that disappear the next day, I thought. Craig was the joker of the group, with hay-colored curls dropping to his eyes. He delivered punch lines in such a deadpan humor that I usually took my cue to laugh from his friends. Ross was jumpy and energetic. He confided to me that it was his first trip to London. And Iain was the fatherly figure, that much was easy to see. He was clearly a decade older than the other two, and his voice carried a gravitas that I found myself naturally drawn to.
“Tell me Froggy, what brings ye to London?”
“I’m just visiting,” I answered, “What about you?”
“Ah, we’re here on business lad,” said Iain, “Although I suspect young Ross here is itchin’ for an English lassie!” They all laughed and Ross blushed.
“Ye probably should wait mate,” said Craig, “Before ye know it they’ll be lining up at yer door asking for a passport.”
Ross turned an even brighter shade of red. But I didn’t understand. Scotland was part of the UK and they shared the same passport. I asked Iain.
“Dinna tell me ye don’t KNOW?” yelled Iain, “We’re due for an independence vote later this year!”
“Really?” I asked. I remembered that some years ago Scotland had already submitted an independence vote to its people, only to see it fail.
“Aye, all that’s needed is a section 30 order from the government and we’re good to go!”
“And go we will!” Craig slapped Iain on the shoulder.
“Go where?” I asked.
“Back into the EU lad! Where do ye think?” shouted Iain, “Ye think we want to stay in this cesspool of homophobes and racists? England’s going to shit, ye ken, and it’s about time we take our future into our own hands. It’s our time for a place in the sun!”
“Scotland doesna have sun Iain,” said Craig. They all burst out laughing.
“Listen lad,” Iain continued, “England’s a goner. Crime is up. Hate crime. The Pakis, the gays, the lesbos, they’re all targets, ye ken. England needs someone to blame for it’s focking mistake. We dinna want to be a part o’ none of it. We’re coming to join you!” He slapped me on the back. It felt like getting hit by a tree trunk, but I smiled and cheered with them. Before I knew it I had paid two more rounds and was quickly losing myself in the accent, rolling ‘R’s to their clear delight. For that night, we were brothers, united against a common historical enemy: England.
That is, up until I passed out in one of the padded leather couches and woke up in my bed, safely back in the South of France, the next morning.
~ End of Chapter 6 ~
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