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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Down and Out of It in the New-Look London

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Two pairs of underwear and socks, one tattered copy of the London Evening Standard, deodorant, toothbrush, half a bottle of Daddies ketchup. Jeans assuming brownish heavy-metallist hue, facial hairgrowth unruly, limbs and intestines aching.

Not Bridget Jones on a rough day, but myself, transformed into the bagman of Paddington railway station, shuffling aimlessly around the west London terminal and its environs with my possessions hoarded in a plastic carrier bag.

Not 48 hours earlier I had been a clean, well-rested passenger nonchalantly preparing to board my plane from Heathrow Airport to Moscow, only to be halted by British Airways staff.

"I'm sorry, sir, the passport number in your Russian visa differs from the number in the passport itself. We can't let you fly, we'd get fined."

Sure enough, someone in the visa office in Moscow had messed up and entered the serial number of my old passport in my new one-year visa instead of the new passport number. I had messed up no less by not checking that the numbers matched. No matter that I had passed unaware through Moscow international airports three times since the documents were issued, here and now I had no grounds to argue with the eagle-eyed BA people.

I stand awkwardly to one side as the other passengers board. Some have a discernible "thank God it's not me" expression as they pass. Stay calm, it might still be a hidden-camera comedy special for Carlton television and I'll be allowed on at the last moment. The boarding gate closes.

"So I just bugger off now, do I?"

"Sorry, sir."

At least my luggage is successfully retrieved from the hold. After a small fortune in calls to Moscow, I trail back to Paddington, clinging naively to hopes that a new visa might be arranged in a couple of days. A backbreaking load of bags is stowed at the station and I suddenly find myself at a loose end, washed up on a sandbank as London life streams around me.

This is not the city I remember as a child, nor the one I lived in during the early 1990s. London had grown sharper, meaner, hipper too, but in a somewhat gaudy, dotcom manner. Even the station I knew from my student travel days was alien to me in October 2003. Gone from the concourse are landmarks like the pub, with its welcoming lived-in feel. Now it's all gleaming kiosks selling the ubiquitous office worker fare of boxed sandwiches and an open-plan Sushi bar with conveyor belt. But the payphones still rip you off.

In view of dwindling funds I need to find a cheap hotel, but first I retreat to a local drinking hole to consider the day's events. Judging from this and other pubs I visit in the following days, barstaff in central London are no longer English, but rather Polish, Brazilian and other exotic nationalities, not an unwelcome change by any means but rather a reminder that barkeeping wages in this absurdly expensive city must be so insulting that only struggling newcomers take the jobs.

Between bouts of self-pity and bored eavesdropping on adjacent tables, I skim the newspapers. Premier League footballers face allegations of gang rape, or "roasting," as the hacks have tastefully dubbed it. There's more on Labour government lies and a frenzy of party political cannibalism among the Conservatives as shadowy factions try to unseat their spectacularly mediocre leader.

The dailies obsess without exception over illusionist David Blaine's 44-day incarceration without food in a glass box suspended near Tower Bridge. With distinctions between Labour and the Tories increasingly blurred these days, new stimuli for debate are needed and this stunt seems to have filled the void. I'm told it's driven a wedge through public opinion rivaled only by events in Iraq and the ruinous state of the rail and Underground system.

Some admire the American's stamina, others despise his self-promotion. Crowds gathered beneath his box to cheer or taunt him, wave cheeseburgers and jiggle bare bosoms in Blaine-baiting sessions coordinated by unknown forces on the Internet. One man even tries to cut off his water supply and rabid golfers take pot shots at him. Aren't we Brits supposed to be a sporting bunch?

Economic news. The death knell has apparently sounded for the pound. The Daily Mirror informs that from his new Madrid home, footballer David Beckham "backed the euro yesterday, claiming that it is 'really easy'. ... His support for the currency will come as a blow to euro skeptics."

That night, a restaurant curry meal that is supposed to boost my flagging morale induces agonizing bouts of simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting. By 9 a.m., I'm optimistic about my survival chances and weakly flick on the television in my fourth-floor attic room. Like a rabbit caught in headlights, I am transfixed by a British chat show called "Trisha," an imitation of U.S. prototypes of the genre that feature hysterical guests who thrash out the great issues of our day. Today's topic, "Mistress: stay away from my man." Later, while traveling on the Tube, I stare blankly at posters for "Jerry Springer -- the Opera." Some stones are better left unturned ...

Admittedly, the Tube and run-down pubs are maybe not the best places to find engrossing talk. But citywide, overheard conversations seem to have become more banal and blinkered than I remember. Mention Russia and you'll likely hear, "Wotchu you want to go there for, mate, it's cold ennit?"

The global blight of consume more, reflect less has not bypassed Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia." Far from it, Britain seems to have been the first call on its transatlantic journey, with London taking the brunt. Then again, maybe it's the same old greedy order of the pre-Blair years, repackaged, slicker, with a double dollop of dotcom.

A funny exchange follows when a Liverpudlian stallholder at Covent Garden craft market turns out to be an ex-member of the British Socialist Workers' Party who visited Moscow in the 1980s. Tales are traded under the gentle October sun, my new buddy packs up his stock and leads me to a pub south of the Thames for a game of pool.

Tucked under rumbling railway arches, it turns out to be the stuff of Guy Ritchie scripts, dingy yet having a seedy charm due to its scarred and worn oak fittings, lack of pretension and absence of Sushi conveyor belts. Hunched figures brood in corners while fidgety, sniffing punters rap irritably at the toilet door if you linger and use it for conventional purposes. Cocaine seems to be London's thing these days, and no longer just among the jet set and city brokers. The drug is also clearly a hit with Joe Bloggs after his shift at the warehouse. Did the trumpeted aspirations of both Tories and Labour to build a classless society come to curious fruition in the nostrils of 21st-century Londoners?

When the new visa comes through six days after the airport fiasco, the book I buy for the journey home is a collection of pieces by the writer Will Self (the one caught smoking heroin on former Prime Minister John Major's plane). "Is English culture bigoted or liberal?" Self asks, concluding that it is both. "Is it hermetic and introverted or expansive and cosmopolitan? It is all of these things."

In those wandering days, I found London's gloomy grandeur and bright lights still melded together with an electric tingle, just as they always had. And while the city now seems encumbered with a pervasive pettiness, its vibrancy and saving strength is more than ever to be found in the eclectic mix you'll find if you stop and look around: the Brazilian bartenders and Arab sheikhs, the coked-up wide boys of Waterloo, the loud new-media types of Islington, and the occasional marooned traveler and his plastic carrier bag.

Nick Allen, a British journalist working in Moscow, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.