London is in a darkness. The smog has come down again. People huddled against the cold, collars up, mood as low as their bootstraps.
This isn’t Merry Old England. It’s a depressed area, a no-go zone. Even the attractions don’t hold much attraction any more.
Look at the London Eye, turning a nagging doubt.
At the turn of the century The Eye was better than a nod and a wink. It was seen as brash and exciting. A real jewel to the Pearly Kings and Queens. But four years on, it’s half empty – and those that are brave enough to pay their tenner to go on it don’t look like they’re having fun.
They just look vulnerable. Duck-shoots suspended in mid-air.
Armed coppers are everywhere.
A mile away on Horseguards Parade, the Queen’s Life Guards are rehearsing, under police guard.
The atmosphere round No 10 bristles like a nuclear arsenal. The lanes of Westminster resemble a motorway pile-up, vehicles pulled over to every side of the road, stacked up on the central reservation. Police scurry over them like yellow-back ants.
Terror and democracy have poisoned the city’s water system with the chemical constituents of fear. They have turned Britain in to a police state.
And it is on devastating alert. London falling!
In St James’s Park, the police are coming in two by two. In the past, muggings were their biggest worry, or the fear that somebody might poke one of the Queen’s resident pelicans in the eye with a stick.
But the fear of wholesale murder is reality now.
People don’t even stop to feed the park’s squirrels. The warmongers of all complexions, legal or illegal, right or wrong, have evicted us from our lives.
I don’t want to be here. But I have to see a friend. Her name has to be guarded as closely as the Crown Jewels √É‚Äì she demands it. She thinks she can because she is rich, talented and was once famous. She wants to be famous again too, after two decades in the wilderness.
She is a singer, an American, on the wrong side of forty. Normally she embodies all the glamour and energy that used to be this elegant part of central London.
Today she’s invited me to her apartment to ‘brainstorm’ her future. But she wasn’t being Greta Garbo when she told me over the phone: “I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to see anybody at the moment.” She sounded more like Anne Frank.
Her rented apartment is a two-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, and is one of the best-kept rock-n-roll secrets in Britain.
Rocks stars aspire to 51 Buckingham Gate. And this is where my friend is refusing to face the world at a time she wants the whole world to face her.
She is a victim of the Third World War.
I am stopped at the massively ornate iron Buckingham gates that could resist any small army. Behind them is a sentry box, behind that a crash barrier. And behind that, the guards. They are polite but insistent as they quiz me from a distance by tanoid.
Then they make a phone call. Five minutes later my friend meets me in the garden. It is as enchanting as she is. The centerpiece to the garden is a massive tiered fountain.
It can cost a million pounds a year to live at 51 Buckingham Gate. My friend is pleased that she can still afford it.
And, as she takes my arm, she begins to show me why it costs so much. She walks me round the garden pointing out the elegance and eccentricities of this seven-storey Edwardian marble building. A frieze of Shakespeare’s works girdles it.
Then she takes me to her apartment.
Sergio Gibeni, her head butler, greets us but she turns distractedly and points back to the street beyond the gates. “Look, it’s like this all the time, that’s why I don’t want to go out. It’s just too frightening.”
A convoy of riot vans is parked half on the pavement, half off the pavement, masking the front of an Italian restaurant that has closed surprisingly early. The riot vans are part of the invasion.
The front door to her apartment is impressive. A replica of the most famous door in the world, No. 10. She is renting the Prime Minister’s suite.
Almost 20 rooms. Enough for an entire entourage – or a War Cabinet.
She shows me the guest book on a table in the hallway. Names like Donald Trump, Dame Shirley Bassey, the prime minister of India. Liam Gallagher and Courtney Love lived here, separately of course.
They all sought privacy – but never imprisonment.
The place is owned by the Tata family of the Taj hotels dynasty, and they are respecters of both people and money.
So, apart from the butler and the maids, they leave the stars alone to get on with their isolation.
It seemed like a good idea to get my friend out of here for a while, get her back into the real world.
I suggested the Bank Westminster, a two minute walk from her opulent front door and still part of this hallowed complex.
Now the Bank Westminster has the longest bar in Europe – and at √Ç¬£9 straight for a G&T you feel like you’ve put a down payment on it.
This is one of the places to be seen if you are rich, famous or simply on the make. It is normally heaving with beautiful people.
Tonight there are gaps along the bar.
Me and my friend down G&Ts like money is no object and I recoup some of my losses by sucking on free olives.
And it’s doing her good – she talks expansively of her plans for her comeback. There’s a new album in her mix and the chance of a musical in the provinces. The album is bluesy and romantic, she says, with pride: “More Janis than Doris,” she laughs with the tinkle of china.
I know my friend is dramatic, theatrical – but I watch as she immediately becomes distracted. Something through the window is drawing her attention. And now she is close to tears.
As I turn, a thin scruffy youth, hair as short as alopecia and a sullenness that speaks of drugs and mindless violence, walks past, looking pointedly in her direction. The window is his monitor and the nearby streets are his hunting ground.
“He’s been past five times in the last few minutes,” she tells me.
She’s close to tears because she’s angry. Angry on all sorts of counts. She’s angry with that thug for getting her in his sights.
She’s angry with him for intimidating her – she’s angry with him for his total disregard for her civil rights. She is angry with him for his threat to invade her territory.
She is also angry with the convoy of police who have closed down the Italian restaurant without a thought – because they can! Because they have bigger fish to fry.
Why should they worry about a drugged thug when you can be part of a war game?
She is angry with the terrorists, the bombers, the poisoners, the suicide angels, the murders, the snipers, the soldiers, the prison guards, the decapitators. All these self-righteous twisted fingers of fate.
She is angry at the world for jeopardising her last chance of a future.
She is angry with all the powers in the world that have conspired to despoil her paradise. Powers that have turned London into the trembling of hell.