Yesterday, I rose at 4am and took a taxi to London’s Heathrow Airport. This is not an uncommon thing for me to have to do. However, I imagine that I must have been a little more awake than usual as I started to pay attention to a great deal more than normal as I was driven out to the airport.
At 5am London’s streets are far from deserted. In Shrewsbury, one of the places where I grew up, I am pretty certain it would have passed for a busy morning but for London it was quiet. People were walking all around the place. At 5am there was queues at bus stops that must have had ten or more people in some of them. There were many more twenty-four hour shops than I had imagined (why isn’t there one near me?) and plenty of road sweepers and street cleaners – people generally keeping the city going for the rest of us that usually awake later in the morning.
I worked a milk round when I was younger. I am used to people being up and around in the still hours before most people awake. This, however, was different. It was busy and, in places, bustling. It was not remarkable to see a few people in the streets but it was very startling to see so many people around.
When you walk home late at night and the buildings remain lit you imagine that, just like you are about to do, they will soon be settled in a dark sleep. Yet, as we sped through West London, I was struck by the number of buildings that contained offices or shops with all their lights blazing. Many of these were shut but were fully lit as though some invisible nocturnal customers were going about their shopping. Offices were lit as though an army of night-time workers were sat, invisibly, at terminals turning the wheels of trade. When you walk home late at night this seems normal yet, in the early hours of the morning before dawn, it seems eerie.
Most unusually there was a market stall selling, I think, fruit and vegetables. It was open and lit on one of the main roads heading westwards. I can not imagine there was sufficient trade but the stall was stocked, well lit and ready for the odd customer that would pass. Who is the strange stall-holder who works the dark hours sat by the street waiting for customers to buy his fruits? Shouldn’t he have been at New Covent Garden collecting his goods at that time, not sat on a cold A-road with no passing trade?
Then there was the man who pastes the new advertising billboards. At 5.15am he was on top of his ladder with a bucket of sticky stuff gluing a new poster for the morning commuters to see on their way into the City. I had always imagined these were changed in the mid-afternoon not in the middle of the night. It must have been far too cold to be doing that job.
There is a whole world that I am not familiar with. It’s really quite strange to come face-to-face with a city you do not recognise.