It is almost a cliché by now to comment that everybody sees a place with different eyes. Some of that comes with different associations, expectations or memories. Some of it, though, can come from mere familiarity and I guess it is a cliché too to point out that tourists and residents will have very different impressions of famous landmarks. The subject of the last column, the Thames, is a case in point. For the Londoner it is something to cross sometimes, or perhaps a source of livelihood, or something rarely seen from one month to the next. For the tourist, however, a trip down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich – passing Gabriel’s Wharf and the Globe and the Tower en route – is one of the must-do items on an itinerary :just as going to Paris involves a trip down the Seine and Budapest means boating down the Danube. In each case, the river takes on a different and inevitably more romantic guise than when seen on a daily basis.
This probably applies to most famous sights – the Acropolis: Temple to the Goddess Athena or a load of old rocks? - and it is often the tourist perspective that provides the inspiration for the most famous songs about them. Like Tulips From Amsterdam, for example, or Under the Bridges of Paris, by Eartha Kitt or Dean Martin: you can almost see the accordion player coming round for money as you chug past the Eiffel Tower. Maybe that accounts for the antipathy to tourists that sometimes surfaces in songs, a feature already pointed out in the column on Boston and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones They Came to Boston – “They came, they saw, they annoyed me” - and in Summer in the City with Madness and A Day On The Town –“Getting the tourists into their traps, taking their money, the shirts off their backs”. The same attitude can be found in Suggs’ Camden: “There's a great crowd of tourists and they're coming down the street, pleased as punch with brand new Doctor Marten's on their feet”
London, of course, is stuffed full of iconic buildings but often, in fact, the best songs are not those about the well-known landmarks but about the small, often unremarkable, things, about scenes that will rarely appear on a tourist’s holiday photos: Kirsty Maccoll’s empty bench in Soho Square or Cath Carroll’s night bus from Camden in London, Queen of My Heart. By and large, those songs of the sights on the tourist trail - those that feature most on the postcards and guide books - lack, for obvious reasons, the little personal touches that make those just mentioned so effective. Oddly, two of the city’s most famous sights – Big Ben and Westminster Abbey- have been musically captured by ragtime piano tunes from the 1950’s: Winifred Atwell’s Big Ben Boogie (with a left hand walking bass rhythm that makes you see why Jet Harris was inspired to take up bass from listening to her records) and Russ Conway’s Westminster. Then there is the Tower of London. Steeped in history and infamy as it is, what musical epic has it inspired? Well, actually, an ABC track –Tower of London, what else - sounding so 80’s you can feel the shoulder pads on it and lyrics that maybe fall a bit short of epic: “Tower over centuries, tower over London, Tower up and frankly I’m amazed”.
There are a few songs, however, that combine both the tourist landmark and the personal with good effect. One is another song inspired by Big Ben, by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera (and sounding strangely like Phil Ochs at times on this track): a little story told in poetic imagery and with Big Ben in the background.
Another is the .track here from 2001, St Paul’s Cathedral At Night by Trembling Blue Stars (largely a vehicle for Bob Wratten) , a rather lovelorn lament veering on self-pity that has echoes of the Pet Shop Boys in its sound. St Pauls is certainly one of London’s most recognizable sights, the tallest building in the city for centuries and captured in the iconic photo/postcard of the dome highlighted during the Blitz of World War 2. It was also the setting for the 'Feed the Birds' scene in Mary Poppins - and currently the site for the Occupy London camp.
My own associations, however, are largely built up round two memories of it. One was a visit there on one of my first trips to London up from the coast, at the age of 5 or 6 I think. No doubt the size and grandeur of it all impressed me but I remember two things in particular. One was the Whispering Gallery, which actually struck me as a disappointment as it didn’t really seem to work as promised. The other was climbing a vertical metal ladder to stand inside the small golden globe right at the top. I sometimes wonder if this is a false memory as it doesn’t seem possible to do that now but I distinctly remember it, partly as the woman in front trod on my fingers in high heels. I am sure there are people who pay good money for that sort of thing but it rather spoilt the view at the time.
The other was taking a succession of French or German school exchange pupils there with my daughter or son. Going round St Pauls can be expensive so I worked out a ruse that satisfied everyone once we had viewed the outside of it. I would say that St Pauls was unfortunately shut to visitors due to a special religious ceremony but luckily we could go nearby to the Monument to the Fire of London, also designed by Christopher Wren and with splendid views from the top. The advantage of this was that the cost was only about £1.The disadvantage was that it has 311 steps ,on which even the plumpest French schoolboy passed me en route to the top.
St Paul’s, like other famous buildings shared by millions, becomes a trigger for personal associations. Bob Wratten’s song here is a bitter sweet one of nostalgia wakened by a postcard , wistful memories of a relationship taking place in a cinema or St James Park. Mine are more mundane – but still my view of St Paul's.