I made a poll, today, amongst my office colleagues. The question was ridiculously simple: “Would you go downtown to see the fireworks, later tonight?”. The answer was a resounding, overwhelming “No”, a result only previously seen at North Korean polls.
You might be thinking that I work with snobs, or that I am a snob myself and that Londoners are like those New Yorkers who take pride in not having been on top of the Empire State Building or in the Statue of Liberty, but you’d be wrong. The simple fact is that going downtown to see the fireworks is a bad, bad, bad idea and if you want to know why all you need to do is read on. It might be a tad too late if you’ve already crashed your piggy bank to pay for the trip of your lifetime to Cool Britannia, but you’ve still got time to change plans and go, instead, to Primrose Hill or dance the night away in some warehouse party in the delightful company of a thousands other ravers. Your choice, really.
People. You have no idea, they’re everywhere.
That’s what Rajesh from the Big Bang Theory said in the attempt of describing India. And the same can be said for London at New Year’s Eve, for its main problem is crowds. London’s overcrowded, sometimes intolerably so, and nowhere is more evident than in the City of Westminster (or any Tube station at rush hour, but I digress). Westminster is an old medieval village at its roots and, no matter how many impressive buildings are now adorning its streets, it retains that heritage. What that means is tiny roads, narrow lanes and a very scarce provision of squares. London never had a Haussmann and, in spite of having built the biggest empire on Earth, the Brits didn’t deem necessary to complete it with a monumental capital on the lines of Vienna or Paris. This means that crowds have nowhere to go, something we found out when, 3 years ago, I decided to tag along a group of friends to see the fireworks.
Our meeting was in Trafalgar Square where, when we sort of negotiated that meat-processing facility known as Charing Cross station, we reconvened pretty much on time. What we saw then was something out of a disaster movie, the scenes they didn’t shoot in 28 days later or I am legend. Police was out en masse, with horses – I previously had seen horses with plexiglass bands around the eyes only outside football stadiums on match days – and metal fences everywhere. Police had shut down all the streets leading to the river – Northumberland avenue, the Strand, and all the smaller passageways east of St-Martin-in-the-Fields – with fences taller than a man made of metallic mesh strewn around sturdy steel poles. Only Whitehall remained open, but it was chock-a-block with people, all trying to go towards Westminster and its bridge but going nowhere. Exasperated officers were barking out instructions more akin to orders than information, people were starting to lose their temper and the horses were getting agitated. In addition to that, every single shop, convenience store or supermarket in the area had been shut down and was patrolled by even more rozzers. In the end we resorted to retreat to St James’ Park where we were treated to the view of literally one wedge of the London Eye and, if we were lucky, some sparks from the fireworks. Oh, and it was raining.
It hasn’t got better with time, up to the point that, this year, the Mayor has thrown the towel and introduced £10 tickets in the attempt to reduce the sheer volume of people attending. They’ve been sold out since September, apparently, even though you can buy some on Ebay for £80 if you hurry. So, bottom line: even if you’re planning to go there, you won’t be able to enter.
Is it even worth it?
The short answer is, I’m afraid, no. I mean, you have to be there in the afternoon to secure a place, stand cross legged on your spot for hours, trying to exert some degree of control on your bladder, there’s nowhere you can buy refreshments from without being ripped off and all this to enjoy… eleven minutes of fireworks. Here’s are the ones from last year, courtesy of BBC1.
And then you’re left queueing up for another three hours to get back to the tube. Which, by now, is filled with people vomiting or peeing on the tracks, because – at the end of the day – New Year’s eve, in London, is a night like any other night.
What should I do, then?
Well, if you really want to see the fireworks go on one of the high spots in the city: Greenwhich, Primrose Hill. And make a mental note to go somewhere else next year.