I have lived in London for so long, and write about London, and I love London. But I have not once, ever, contemplated going on the London Eye. Although it has become an instantly recognisable and significant part of London's skyline, it just seems like it would be a silly thing that tourists paid a lot of money for. There are spectacular views to be had all over the city that you don't have to pay or queue for. Anyway, my first time on the Eye happened to be for free, and as part of an event called 32 Londoners, organised by the Eye people, and the awesome A Curious Invitation and Antique Beat. This made the Eye sound a hundred times more interesting - each pod would have a guest speaker talking about one of 32 Londoners who have shaped London to be what it is today. As a total theatre geek I chose a talk from Jude Kelly on the legend that was Joan Littlewood.
The night before the event there was a breathtaking sunset and I thought - Yes! This means it will be totally sunny tomorrow. Whoever made up that rhyme about shepherd's delight was totally wrong. The next day it poured with rain non-stop. The beginning of the event was a total washout I'm sad to say. I have a genuine sadface as I write that, because I so wanted it to be as fantastic as it had sounded in the invite. The pre-talk lounge they had made for us was a bit of the street with a white fence around it, and a couple of small marquees. A cute Hendricks bar stood out in the open, with a couple of shivering bartenders pouring gins with stony faces to a long, miserable queue.
What is it about pouring rain that makes everything so wretched? You would have thought it would be really apt for an event about London, and that we'd all be used to it. I think what made it a downer is that instead of the jolly gin-soaked garden party they had hoped for, the wet and cold made us all very concious of waiting in a holding pen for ninety-minutes and hating every one of them. On the plus side, it was fun to see all the placards of the 32 famous Londoners bobbing around, and a nice moment came from one of the organisers doing a roll-call: "Queen Victoria! Charlie Chaplin! Chaucer! Chaucer?...where's Chaucer?!"
They did have an awesome band playing though. And it was interesting to see who had signed up for which talk. Apparently the most popular one was The Krays (technically, there were 34 Londoners, as Gilbert & Sullivan made another pair) and this sold out in a day. There were an interesting range of speakers too; Ken Livingstone talked about Herbert Morrison, Claire Tomalin covered Samuel Pepys, and Sir Andrew Motion got poetical about Keats. There were some people that you thought - have they shaped London? Naomi Campbell? Ozwald Boateng? Really?... Sure they're famous and that, but some of the 32 I think they had clutched at straws somewhat. I will have to listen to the podcasts of those I doubted (every talk's podcast is on 32 Londoners website) and I will probably be proved very wrong.
Finally, after what felt like forever, we were herded into our groups and taken from the pen to the pods. It was a bit like queuing for a roller coaster or something, everyone was getting a bit excited. We saw the speakers arriving through a fast-track lane, all totally dry of course. Wherever they'd been holed up it was probably warm and toasty. One thing that surprised me about the pods is that they don't stop! When you look at the Eye it doesn't appear to move much at all, so the speed at which each pod travelled across the platform was slightly alarming, and you have to hop on quickly.
I take it all back. This is not a sily thing to do. I will always recommend going on the London Eye to anyone from this day forth. Especially at night. It was just stunning - you could see so far and wide, London from all angles lit up, so vast and sparkly. My photos don't do it justice!
A circuit of the eye takes about 25 minutes (another reason I have never thought it worth the money), but this was enough time to hear Jude on Joan, have a complimentary Hendricks cocktail (they had designed 32 different ones specially for this event), and to watch London through the glass. It was over so quickly, but so special and magical, that it felt like the whole cramped, miserable rain-soaked wait had been worth it. Jude was brilliant, you can hear her fantastic talk on the podcasts, and she made fascinating points about just how much Joan has shaped theatre in the UK, and especially in London. She said her biggest fear is that Joan will be forgotten or just thought of as an odd woman, whereas male directors like Peter Brook and Richard Eyre are lauded. I hope this doesn't happen either, Joan truly was an amazing character and hugely significant in theatre's history. Thanks to everyone who organised this! Shame about the rain, but it all ended up being totally worth it.