London’s Docklands

I went to London for the weekend but I could have been on the Moon. I was going to a wedding and I booked a room in a modern hotel in London’s redeveloped Royal Victoria Docks in the old East End which had once been one of the most important docks in the World but which is now a rapidly growing centre for leisure, exhibitions and, well, leisure.

The hotel with its preserved cranes standing idle in rows was a strange mix of the old and the new. So was the exhibition centre, Excel London which was next door. Acres of exhibition space which will be expanded even further next year sits on the site of a very different industry where dockers broke into a decent sweat and developed a bit of sinew in real old fashioned labouring.

There is a piece of bronze sculpture to commemorate them and, in a nice piece or real realism, the sculptor has captured the dignity of labour unsentimentally and, to my eyes, poignantly.

In the way of the 21st Century, big grown up industries have been packed away to be replaced by our insatiable appetite for leisure and, by the look of it, exhibitions and conferences.

Yesterday at Excel London I could have attended, for £22, an exhibition called A Taste of Christmas sponsored by a well-known supermarket chain. No thanks very much, I think I will wait until 25th. December.

It was, maybe, too easy to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the old days when ships from around the World were moored all around here to unload their version of A taste of Christmas, or a taste of many other things too: spices, fruits, minerals and produce from all corners of that thing that used to be called The British Empire.

People are still coming here from all around the World though, this Japanese woman was demonstrating some finer points of Japanese Christmas fare no doubt and deserved that well-earned cigarette break outside the exhibition centre over-looking the now derelict Spillers Mill across the water.

Undoubtedly those old mills will be transformed into highly desirable water front apartment blocks for a new generation of city brokers and bankers.

They scrub up nicely as the other surviving buildings from the golden age of industry demonstrate clearly.

I am not condemning the changes, far from it, I am sure that it is much less exhausting to be an exhibition steward at Excel than it would have been to have been one of those dockers man-handling crates all day. A barman in one of those trendy wine-bars has a better life too I suspect. Well the black barman who served me a fine espresso coffee was having fun practising his cocktail shaker juggling whilst he shimmied to the up-tempo dance music which was being relayed from a myriad of speakers around the converted brick warehouse space.

The past has gone from these parts and only a few of those atmospheric old buildings remain to remind us that London used to be a place where men and women got their hands dirty, their backs broke and their lungs polluted.

Now most people are like me, exerting the little muscle they have left clicking away on keyboards or, unlike me, selling things like money, leisure and fast food to anyone with a taste for modern living.

The Royal Victoria Docks are a classic example of the modern phenomenon that is 21st Century London. I know those young bankers and city types have had a wobbly year but all around me this weekend were signs of wealth, hope and the spirit of leisure. Those money boys know how to have fun as anyone could tell looking from my viewpoint yesterday at the clean water with its yachting weekenders in front of the new financial skyline dominated by Canary Wharf and the much maligned Dome, now called O2.

These people are having fun. They live in sexy new waterfront apartment blocks with gyms, restaurants, and laundries at hand so that they can devote themselves to ferocious money dealing and money making during the day and then they can return to a pampered modern living environment which is London’s new East End.

I am not knocking it….just envying them their fun.

Oh yes, and that wedding. The ceremony was in the town hall and the reception in a disused church’s crypt. Another symbol of the 21st Century perhaps. The formerly sacred is now a piece of civic administration but the celebration has become sacred. Excellent food, plenty of drink and dancing to flashing lights was also nicely housed in the vaulted surroundings of this former crypt. On the walls were a series of sculptures of the Via Crucis, Christ on his way to Crucifixion. Not an image of marriage I hope but a strange piece of symbolism just the same.

Nowadays we party in the docks and we party in the churches too – maybe we have finally worked out that life is for living and that buildings are just that, buildings. We shouldn’t be ruled by them or their former masters. If we get things right, we might even enjoy the 21st Century, I hope so.

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