LONDON LESSONS 4

I cycle every morning down through Hackney Central, cut over Morning Lane and through Victoria Park into Bow. En route I stop by the Regent’s Canal for a few minutes to smoke a cigarette and watch the coots and moorhens, the joggers and dog-walkers, the narrowboats with empty cans of Polish lager bobbing against their hull.

I’m teaching an eight-year-old Chinese boy. His family are from Shanghai and it appears three generations, at least, are in the flat, a gleaming and horrible new-build that looks directly out over the Olympic Park. The stairwell smell is a blend of new fibrous carpet, something rubbery, maybe the residue of fresh paint. There are no ghosts in this building.

On the fifth floor, the view out over East London is breathtaking but muted by double glazing. I can see the stadium, milling crowds, the curl of the Lea and building still in progress. The boy’s wrinkled grandmother nods at me when I enter every morning and occasionally presents me with a plate of a fruit I do not know the name for. This is a rare case of a family demanding every-day summer tuition for their son. I’m glad to have the work.

On the first session I made a request, and now the boy’s mother brings me chemical-strong instant coffee every single morning. I don’t have it in me to say I don’t want it.

The Olympics are in full swing and I’m very close to the belly of the beast but London is a ghost town, the only people I see are yellow jacketed security and well-meaning volunteers whose motives I simply don’t understand. A few confused tourists wandering a London that does not fit the picture in their heads. I wonder if they're disappointed.

The boy is a pain, spoiled with material goods but pushed too hard, he owns a smartphone, tablet and laptop as well as numerous consoles and gadgets, and is happy with none of it. He owns the complete set of

Beast Quest,

recycled tales of fantastic creatures such as Arctus the ice giant, Sepron the sea-serpent and Nanook the snow monster. I tell the boy things like

Nanook was the name of an Inuit and not really a monster

and

a horse-man is called a ‘centaur’

and sigh at how pointless this knowledge is as I tell him to put his smartphone away whilst looking out toward the Stratford Westfield. I’m a hypocrite, for when the boy disappears to the toilet I pull out my own phone and check emails, send my girlfriend a message I find funny, before quickly slipping it out of sight when he returns.

I think of myself at age eight in a drizzly coastal town, with a Super Nintendo I shared with my brother, a few books of dinosaurs and Norse mythology I bored my parents with. I wonder if things really were simpler for kids back then. Insight or nostalgia, I don’t know. The little boy talks about Usain Bolt and other athletes but I haven’t been watching the TV and find it hard to stoke his enthusiasm when I lack it myself, a failure as a teacher and I don’t care. One afternoon, session thankfully finished, I take the tube into town to meet a friend, sit on the carriage watching a group of six drunk-but-happy Hungarians draped in their country’s colours sipping from vodka bottles and swigging strong lager. They don’t know about the booze ban on the underground, but London is dead and no-one seems willing to spoil their fun. It’s the Olympic year. These Hungarians possess the spirit I lack. A paper discarded on the seat next to me tells of a cyclist who went under the wheels of a diverted bus in Hackney Wick, another scarlet smear. Collateral damage, a bad metaphor.