James ONiell

An Ode to an Elephant

I studied at the London College of Communication from the tail end of 2009 to the middle tail end of 2013 and whilst at LCC I frequently visited the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre across the road. From my earliest days at uni, the shopping centre was a kind of respite, a place to pass free time if I was early for class or done for the day and detouring from the tube station for a bit of variety. I remember sitting on the red metal benches beside the escalator and reading my Henning Mankell, letting the time pass. I remember my mum waiting for me in one of the cafes whilst I had my initial nervous interview before my university life started. I remember having the hottest cup of tea I’d ever had in a diner on the second floor near the always-tempting Indian restaurant. I remember bowling with my classmates in the alley and scoring a strike on my first throw. Then messing up the scores by fiddling with the buttons thinking I was turning on an air vent and making my friends wonder what the hell was happening to the bowling order on the scoreboard on the TV screen above us. I remember killing time in the WHSmiths. Drifting through looking at the books and the magazines. I remember the disparate and vibrant market life outside that always bustled and hummed. I remember the beautifully muraled subway network that splintered off from it like tree roots. I remember the cold in winter and the welcome breeze in the summer. I remember huddling in, dripping from the pouring rain, glad for the shelter. And the Tai Tip Mein Chinese restaurant outside, which often served as a treat after a long day and time to sit with friends and laugh for a few hours. Shopping Centres become something of a background in our lives, especially if they are starting to wear their age as the Elephant & Castle centre did. But for me it was a necessary background. Without a background, the events in your life have no context and a good background is one that you don’t even know is there. Only in this case, I knew full well that just outside my campus walls, the shopping centre stood buzzing with life. And that was something that always brought me a sense of comfort. In times of tumult and change, we look for things that take us out of it for a while, and starting straight from Sixth Form in a big proper university without my friends was just that. The shopping centre was something detached from that world. No assessments. No assignments. Just a place to walk, to sit, to think and breathe a little. It was a rare place in London. A vanishing island. Unashamed and in places unpolished, but genuine and warm and always welcoming. I am very glad that it was my background for those years.