The countries of London are everywhere.
Fluid and untraceable, they permeate the city like a layer of oxygen.
Without them, the city will suffocate.
To the observant, each country reveals its patterns, with time.
The perception of each country is forged by a myriad signs. But no one, not even the ones paying attention see them all at once.
The important thing though, is to see.
In the tube.
Down the escalator, bursts of culture on the walls calling: Lion King, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, VA, the Tate, Southbank Center.
They grasp at the attention of those carried down into airless stuffy corridors into airless stuffy platforms into carriages with destroyed air.
No other distractions but the roaringwhistlinghowling of the tunnel and the dead air outside sliced through by the train.
If the journey allows time to observe it is possible to see the signs.
Two men facing each other on blue speckled seats worn by millions of bodies. The leather of their boots impeccable despite the wear. They smell of tobacco and fresh cologne.
Casually they lean forward, exchanging words. Their mouths move but it’s their hands doing the talking. A conversation evoked through fingers and palms. Their gestures sound words in danger of being drowned out.
Fragments of conversation drop in and out, riding currents of sound. The hands do not cease to cultivate meaning. All along they’re there, playing their significant part.
One of London’s countries, a moment captured in the tunnels.
Oxford street at its busiest negates personal space, turning side walks into human material.
Shoppers plunge across the street to plunder retail on the other side. Consumed by John Lewis, Selfridges and House of Frazer, inside, they exchange one value for another.
A constant stream of wreckless crossings frightens slow moving double deckers and squarish black cabs into paralysis.
But relentlessly the human chaos goes on.
A woman flickers amongst it, embracing a red Desigual bag, heavy twisting hair undisturbed by the rush or the absence of space.
Her perfume trails behind her like a long scarf.
Within the layers of scent – Gaudi, Las Ramblas, a breeze from the Mediterranean.
The perfume is crisp and untouched as if she carries the bottle with her to revive it each time it fades.
Perfume that holds and carries a world within it.
A glimpse. Another sign.
At Finsbury Park, where the movements of hustlers and strugglers have sharp edges and air smells like need.
A place where people shaped flocks fly into Lidl to buy up cheap fruit and staples of flour, sugar and tea and where shoplifting attempts, shoplifting denials, shoplifting escapes make them poised for flight again.
Away from the dread and the need and moments of violence is Blackstock road.
There amongst halal butchers and pastry shops selling baklava, halva and kahk, men gather after dark.
At Med Sweets, the storefront is warm with honeydew glow from the lamps and it draws the men.
Inside they drink bitterly black coffee and eat sweets and talk.
Outside in the square pocket of light they smoke strong tobacco and talk.
The place they occupy on the side walk is as real as the shop itself. It has form, a shape created by their presence.
Pedestrians feel it. They step off onto the curb to pass as if physically prevented from intruding.
Every day the men are there at Med Sweets following an unspoken discipline, a self imposed constraint. This unshakeable ritual of smoke, coffee and conversation grounds them. They talk to each other with a keen focus, sincere eagerness to hear and be heard.
During the brief moments when they are silent, their faces are fulfilled.
And it is a sign too….
The countries of London are all around. Transcending events, opinions, politics, doubts and certainty.