Leicester Square on a Sunday afternoon is all the very worst of London.
Crowds of people mill around, with no obvious sense of purpose or direction; tourists spill noisily from over-priced chain restaurants; the scents of sweat and grease mingle as their bodies and burgers are warmed in the sunshine.
Dark blue hoardings section off half the square, proudly proclaiming "we're getting ready for 2012". Here in 2011, people negotiate their own version of an Olympic steeplechase round the half-completed road works. As you pause outside the Odeon, imagining a red carpet rolled out across the upended paving slabs, you wonder what the Hollywood stars would make of this shabby London première; ball-gowns and high-heels mixed with JCBs and potholes.
Tucked between the restaurants and bars are the small shops, stacked high with souvenirs; in one, there are enough t-shirts to bestow an artless slogan on everyone in the square; in another a sea of red plastic - miniature London buses, telephone boxes, Royal Mail post-boxes. Do people ever really buy these as gifts for their loved ones, or is the whole world caught up in a game of "bring me back the worst thing…"?
In one corner of the square there’s a side street where tall buildings block out the sunshine; their shade acts as a deterrent to the crowds and it's suddenly quiet. At the far end there's an old-fashioned pub; the unwelcoming threat of its dark black exterior is mellowed by the gold lettering of the name picked out above the windows and a long cold drink is suddenly the thing you need most.
Stopping just inside the door, you take a moment to adjust to the gloom. There's a long bar on the left, and you're surprised to see how many people are standing against it; a part of you still thinks that Sunday afternoons are for sleeping off a roast dinner in front of the TV. At the far end there’s a seating area where padded leather benches line the oak-panelled walls. Red-shaded wall-lights are reflected in the wood, their glow a testament to centuries of polishing. Hanging between them, the glaring faces of lords and politicians send out their own gilt-framed messages of history and you begin to understand why this place is called The Imperial.
The leather benches are the colour of dried blood, and just for a moment, when you see the jumble of music cables spilling out over them, you think of entrails, but then you notice the guitar case that sits bolt upright and alone, quietly claiming the space, politely waiting its turn. You know that it's waiting for the singer to give it a voice, to introduce it to the crowd. So you find a wooden chair and wait.
The afternoon wears on and an ever-changing stream of tourists, Londoners, drinkers, singers and listeners passes through the bar. You watch them come and go, see them stop for a drink and stay a while for the music. You notice how tense they seem when they come through the doors and how quickly they relax. You begin to realise the value of this place, so steeped in history but welcoming the new; happy to accept both young and old, strange and known.
And then you know, that this small place just yards from Leicester Square, is all the very best of London.