London has various peculiarities that may be of use.
- Big Issue vendors - homeless or ex-homeless people who sell a weekly magazine called the Big Issue, which they buy for 40p or something, and sell for £1.70. They tend to pitch outside tube stations in the central underground (metro) zone 1, or outside middle-class supermarkets like Waitrose or Marks and Spencers Simply Food in the suburbs.
- There are several homeless charities - Shelter, Crisis are the biggest - tonnes of information through Homeless Link (homeless.org.uk/).
- Street begging is pretty rare, hustling is a bit more common. But what beggars there are tend to set up camp by cash machines or (bizarrely) McDonalds.
- We have a specific type of police offer- a PCSO (Police Community Support Officer) who would probably be the first to encounter her. They’re sort of Police Lite.
- England has a high teenage pregnancy rate, so it wouldn’t be a shock to see one. But they would be immediately discriminated against. The stereotype is of a young girl in a shell suit (shiny tracksuit), with big hoopy earrings and a ‘Croydon facelift’ which is where the hair is pulled tight back from the face into a ponytail.
- There is a sizeable Greek community, but you are more likely to encounter a Greek Cypriot (with all the politics that entails). There are now many (MANY) more Poles as immigrants.
- Alternative types would go to Camden, multi-cultural towards the East End - there is a real mix of very rich and very poor still in the East End in the Docklands area, south of the river is generally poorer and portrayed as much more violent (Peckham in particular). Clapham has many Kiwis, Aussies and Saffers.
- It’s very easy to get lost, but the tourist bits are pretty close together above land - it’s the tube system that makes everything look vast. There isn’t a really cab culture here, except for the affluent.
- There are currently dozens of elephants scattered around London as ‘art’. Last year there were pianos. The year before there were statues (casts of Antony Gormley).
- After midnight, the West End has legions of unlicensed mini-cabs picking up drunk people and returning them South of the River or wherever. The media goes through cycles of demonising them, as there have been cases of drivers exploiting the situation (rape, robbery etc).
- Nightbuses have an N in front of the route. As I’m now in my late thirties, I’d avoid them like the plague.
- You used to be able to ride the tube all day in a circle, on the Circle line. The Circle line is no longer a circle, which is a shame.
- Pen knives would be sold in a tobacconists, here.
London is dirty. It’s expensive. If New Yorkers are rude, then Londoners are simply indifferent, preserving their little bubble of personal space. It’s not that they’re unfriendly, they just have more important things to do than be bothered with you. The homeless are routinely ignored. You are on CCTV pretty much everywhere in central London. The streets can’t cope with traffic and the centre is full of tourists. Really old buildings sit next to really new buildings. The Thames smells unpleasant and the tidal effect is surprising when you go a bit upriver. The business districts are a ghost town out of office hours (even though people do live there). It’s expensive. Public transport for a 15 year old would be free, but she’d need to have an oyster card (pre-paid credit swipe-card system).
One particularly scary experience is trying to travel against a tide of commuters. Liverpool Street in the morning, for example. There’s a wave of men and women in suits surging towards you, trying to be the first on the street, on the bus. Must be first. Oh, and every time you travel on the tube you’re covered in filth - it’s amazing how much dirt is down there (in summer it’s also unbearably hot and people are always fainting and causing delays. It’s also the only time outside of a pub you’ll see naked aggression - commuting is stressful, as in any city).
Other vast generalisations: most food-service personnel (waiters, baristas) are immigrants (Eastern Europeans in coffee-shops, ex-colonials in pubs). Most bus/tube/minicab (not black cab) drivers are black or other ethnic minority. Americans are generally derided, or those that are over here, immensely apologetic (Obama is changing this perception, but it’s rare to find an out and out Yankophile in the way that you would in the Eighties).
Ok. Last bit of this ramble. Kew Gardens in West London has a BioDiversity bank, and just about any plant you can think of - if the story is plant related, then this could be a mecca of sorts. It’s absurdly expensive to get in and full of people picnicking. Or Victoria Park has history, or Hampstead Heath has the reputation for well, all sorts.
And there’s a garden in Trevor Square, round the corner from Harrods, if you want somewhere affluent. (Knightsbridge is a surreal other world, full of rich Russians and bored men in suits standing outside luxury shops, with shades and an earwig on to pass the time, as despite all media claims to the contrary, most of London is relatively safe).
And last, but not least, there are various eco-groups that would probably be ideal for your heroine to try and link up with. One group has just been evicted from Kew Bridge Eco Village (google it) and have moved here: indymedia.org.uk/en/2010/05/451208.html . They’re typified as ‘crusties’ here, but they reclaim land and grow their own food etc. By their nature they would usually accept someone into the ‘tribe’.