On London

I lived in London for eight years but never felt in the least bit at home there.

On visits during my childhood,  it was a place of almost uncontrollable excitement.  Somewhere you long looked forward to going, got up early for (dragged out of bed by mum and fed cold toast wrapped in tin foil on the train).  Somewhere you had to hold someone’s hand at all times.  Somewhere you stood, unable to believe that you were looking at the actual Big Ben, the real Buckingham Palace.  Where there were more people than you’d ever seen – important people doing important things.  Where you went all day without sitting down and then flopped back into bed 18 hours later, your ears still ringing and your head throbbing.

It was like a theme park – there was never enough time to have a go on everything.  We could either go to the Tower of London or to the British Museum, but not both.  Harrods or Hamleys?  See the river or walk down Oxford Street?  It wasn’t a place you could ever stand still, or stop and think about anything, or remember any of your cares.  You could only exist in the moment, trying in vain to take everything in.  Nothing was connected – it existed as a series of scenes from a postcard, somehow connected by the Wonderful Underground Railway, but not in a way which was possible to understand.

London was a place where things happened.  A source of strange comfort on rainy Tuesday afternoons that however boring things were in East Yorkshire, something was bound to be going on in London.

At university, I again became the London day-tripper, catching coaches occasionally to glide through mumsy Notting Hill via an unaccountably depressing Hillingdon.  London retained all its metropolitan bustle but somehow became less overwhelming.  It was still exciting to go there for the day but it felt like a bigger version of Leeds or Manchester.  Some of its London-ness had worn off.  I stopped getting headaches.

And as we finished university, London became a badge of honour – it was where you went if you had a job.  You could talk nonchalantly about renting in Clapham or Kennington, trying to sound as though you had the least idea about where such places were, while quietly worrying about being stabbed or having to live in some sort of fetid, maggot ridden hovel – which is what most houses in London seemed to look like from the outside.   Finding a house, the gritty, uncomfortable process of lifting London’s skirts aloft and inspecting what lay underneath, represented the first stage of formally becoming a Londoner.  Oh the thrill, the excitement of giving my SW2 postcode!

But, the  novelty soon dissipated.  Having drawn me in, London saw fit to show me its unappealing side, like a lousy partner shortly after the wedding.  Oh, so you have very expensive habits?  And you smell of wee in unforeseen places?  And large parts of you aren’t safe to be explored at night?  I see.  You’re not the London I thought you were.

I became conscious that  huge numbers of people wanted to be there, but couldn’t understand why.   Oxford Street was a curious example of this.  Far too many people, pushing to get into slightly larger branches of the same shops which can be found in any British city.  Queuing for ages to buy a sandwich which looks remarkably like one sold in Sheffield, but for some reason costs £2 more.  Spending an hour on tubes and buses travelling what later turns out to be easy walking distance.  London’s appeal, once so obvious, now retreats into places where one hardly ever goes – to the museums, the tourist attractions, the London which you only see as a visitor rather than a resident.   Any sense of wonder becomes reliant on the presumed exoticism of the unknown – the light behind the curtain.  Plenty of unknown still left of course, but the same kinds of unknown.

And then, London took me back to my childhood briefly, when I spent a year doing a weekly commute by plane, getting a taxi to Heathrow at 5am each Monday morning from Brixton.  We are all children at that time of the morning.   No cold toast this time, but the same, weary sense of wonder and distraction.  Whisked, too fast, down Brixton Hill and down the surprisingly-busy-at-that-time high street, populated mainly by stop-out drinkers and the people clearing up after them.  A case study in the inequalities of society.   Towards Stockwell, passing with reassuring speed past looming blocks of flats, rising from an indeterminate point out of the ground and curtained away out of sight, apart from a single light here and there.  Some poor lady getting up early for a cleaning job on the other side of the river, perhaps.  Whizzing past hooded figures crouching in doorways or disappearing down alleyways, always turning their backs to our approaching lights.  Through Vauxhall past a club where people were still queuing up to get in at 0600 on a Monday morning, doggedly pursuing what was presumably a powerfully sick beat.

Across the river, misty like a meadow, then through Chelsea – all tall houses with a lamp left on downstairs showing a flash of fine art here, a mezzanine floor there.  I wondered who lived there as my head knocked dozily against the window of the taxi.  Important people doing important things, no doubt.  The streets were empty here, still slumbering apart from the occasional super-keen jogger padding silently along the river, puffing out steam and dazzling in their reflective lycra.  Then into Fulham and down narrow, one way streets with cars packed into the spaces at either side as tightly as new shoes.   Faded, Georgian frontage, cracked and coated in grey dust and pigeon feathers, converted within an inch of their lives – from their darkened basement flats with sticking plaster holding the door-bell together, to their soaring loft conversions with pot plants drooling over tiny balconies.  Onto the A4, past shabbier houses, still with porches, teetering steeply onto narrow pavements.  Who would choose to live on so busy a road?  Past the Three Famous Kings pub, the headlights of passing cars manipulating ghostly silhouettes of stools up on the tables.  Never anyone inside the downstairs but always a light on the first floor. Landlord gets up early.

Then onto the Hammersmith Flyover – perhaps the part of the UK which feels most like America – as though created to make Texans arriving at Heathrow feel more at home.  The road rears up like a rollercoaster and rises proudly past old factories, car showrooms and huge advertising hoardings promising faster broadband.  Someone was always working in the SEGA building.  For some reason this amused me – I thought of some poor developer whose boss had shouted at him the previous night “You WILL come up with 3 more moves for Sonic by tomorrow morning”.

The scene changed again when I began working in London full-time.  The London of my late 20s was characterised by night-buses, ever reliable steeds which trundled us ponderously, but reliably, to within yards of our homes from almost anywhere.  The N87 was my usual transport – all the way from Whitehall  (I instinctively seemed to end up there somehow at the end of every drunken night out, like a homing device), to Wimbledon.  With what tender care we wended our way through Battersea and Clapham, along a mysterious and lengthy route, clutching a MacDonalds I didn’t really need, chatting to friends in a too-loud voice if I was with them, or else reading a rolled up copy of Private Eye while listening to music too loud if not.  Late night London is always better with music; DJ Shadow, Leftfield, Crystal Castles.  All around me are couples or groups, swinging around on the straps and almost falling over whenever the bus drove into steep corners.  The noise is like a nightclub, except the lights are too bright, revealing stained teeth, puckered skin, dandruff.  On the opposite side of the bus is a young man reading a Paul Theyroux paperback very seriously, and in front of him a petite, pretty young woman who looks as though she has been crying.  I feel sorry for her as she dismounts and disappears up a dark street in Battersea.  Hope she has a better night next time.

“Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.

But whilst night-time London never lost its intrigue,  my queasiness about daytime London quickly resurfaced, often in unforeseen ways.  For instance, I never quite understood people’s raving about its parks.  “Look – it’s green! And it’s in a city! Well look at us having it all”, the smug faces of joggers in Battersea Park seemed to say, as they pause to take a picture of a brown horse-chestnut leaf which will subsequently be tagged ‘Isn’t Battersea Awesome!!!’ on Facebook.  I wanted to stop them and say – “excuse me, but you’re not under the impression that this is somehow ‘the countryside’ are you?”  Granted, grass is definitely better than no-grass – and I appreciate that not all cities are endowed with so much open space as London,  but for me there’s a limit to how far you can feel like you’re wallowing in rural bliss when you can read the logos on the planes flying into Heathrow, and at any given time mentally triangulate the locations of at least three sirens coming from various directions.  Indeed it’s frustrating to have some of the teasing indicators of countryside, in the form of trees, lakes and butterflies, so starkly removed from their accompanying forests, waterfalls and meadows.  I’d love to move Battersea Park to North Yorkshire and see if anyone ever came.  Bet they bloody wouldn’t.

And, worse, London seemed during that period to be inhabited by a series of social-stereotypes, none of which I could squeeze myself into.  There was the London of Brixton market and Shoreditch high-street; edgy, cool, buzzing – always overflowing from too-noisy, stuffed bars into the street with a late night belch of some subversively named craft beer, ‘Streaker’; ‘Nun’s Nipple’, etc.   Then there was the London of Herne Hill, Clapham North, Dulwich; redolent with £1000 prams and shops selling organic hemp-wheat quinoa crackers to women called Tiffany who worked as account managers in ad agencies and did bikram yoga.  Then there were the really posh areas – Belgravia, South Kensington, Sloane Square, where as far as I could tell, you weren’t even allowed in most of the shops without proof of earnings.   The problem with trying to locate yourself among the inhabitants of these areas is that none of them exists in most cities, and certainly not in the northern towns of my childhood.

As such, I found it very hard to feel at home in a London which was either looming council estates, daring you to wander into their labyrinthine insides, so complex they have their own little map by the entrance, or vast town-houses with Bentleys hunched outside.  Where are all the people in between?  Where are all the people like me?  Where are the Ford Mondeos?

The last phase of my London life was in Pimlico with my fiancée – our first home together.  A better London experience overall, not least because Pimlico is actually in London, rather than being a town several miles away which happens to have enough rows of terraced houses connecting it to London to make it  – technically – a part of the same city.   In Pimlico you can walk everywhere, and at weekends it takes on a glorious solitude, free from the bustle of neighbouring Victoria and Vauxhall.  Pimlico is verdant, resplendent in Georgian townhouses, effortlessly plush and yet also somehow concealed and understated – our friends never quite knew how to get there or where it was.  Its confusing grid of not-quite-parallel streets makes navigation a challenge.

Our neighbours were eccentric in various ways.  The woman who had the first floor flat next to ours never spoke to us, other than once when there were fire-engines at the front in the middle of the night, and we both came out to see what was going on.  “It’s your building”  she said, accusingly.  I thought this an odd thing to say in a long row of terraced Georgian houses.  “These houses go up in about 3 minutes you know” she said, dramatically.  “mmm, I know”, I replied, absently.   “Oh you know that do you?” she countered, aggressively, disappearing inside again.  I tended to avoid her after that.  She was sometimes to be heard shouting advice to rowing couples on the road outside, late at night.  “Don’t react!” she screamed once, to a woman shooing a rejected lover away from her doorway.

The house on the other side was even more interesting.  In the basement lived a very thin young man who I only ever saw going to and from the corner shop.  He always looked as though it was the first time he had seen daylight in weeks, and walked with a head-down, purposeful gait, always close to the inside of the pavement .  Once, I happened to be walking  closer to the inside of the pavement than he was, and he paused as we approached each other and made hand gestures to indicate that I should move outwards.  As we were packing up the car for the last time to leave the house, he stood next to me and cackled loudly for about 10 seconds.

 He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

But it was the other floors of the house next door which really intrigued me.  The ground floor flat always seemed to be occupied, with a filthy net curtain which fluttered thanks to a tiny gap always left at the bottom of the sash window. Inside was what looked like an old-fashioned standard lamp, creating the faintest of orange glows by night.  Mr Normal from the basement was occasionally to be seen entering or leaving, sometimes accompanied by a man who somehow managed to look exactly as though he had stepped out of a betting shop in the 1970s.  Overweight and perpetually glistening, he wore a ragged old grey suit, always had a fag hanging out of his mouth, and walked in a lop-sided, pained way.  He had the air of an insurance salesman down on his luck.  Really down on it, like after some natural disaster, the insurance against which had formed the mainstay of his career.

I assumed that the house was some sort of squat or drug den.  I pictured fatty and Mr Normal weighing out huge blocks of cannabis inside, or making crystal meth in their kitchen wearing only their underwear.  There were other strange comings and goings – women who looked like nurses or cleaners, others who appeared more like prostitutes.  Several deliveries were made to the house each day – including what looked like a meals- on -wheels service.  I never saw anyone else coming in or out, making me wonder whether the house had not been fully converted into flats in the way that all the others in the street had.  Perhaps Fatty and Normal had the run of a huge Georgian mansion, collapsing on chaise-longes in their drug addled confusion.  Who owned it?  Had one of them inherited the place from a relative and now chose to use it in this way, smoking away the family fortune?  Were they there legally?  Who keeps a house in super-prime London in such a lousy condition, when it could be rented or sold on for millions?  Certainly nobody had painted it or cleaned the windows for a Very Long Time.

But for all its peculiar charm, Pimlico’s captivation was only temporary.  The part where we lived was more starkly divided between rich and poor than anywhere I have ever lived.  The Bentleys were literally across the road from the entrance to Churchill Gardens – one of those estates with a map outside.  One Sunday evening, a minute’s walk from our flat, a teenager was brutally stabbed to death as he ran out of the estate while trying to escape his killers,  bleeding to death beneath the hanging baskets and scrubbed limestone of the houses on the other side of the road.   The juxtaposition of his world and the world to which he had tried to escape somehow seemed so raw, so obscene, that I could never quite see Pimlico in the same way afterwards.

We left London just before my wife gave birth – escaping, like so many before us, to the area just outside London’s ever-expanding mushroom cloud of rising house prices.  Our tiny, rented, one -bedroom flat in Pimlico had increased in value during our 3 year tenancy from around £350k to £650k.

You will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.

And so I am no longer a Londoner.  But while profoundly alienating, this absurd, endlessly interesting city developed a hold over me, and I kicked myself for not realising why.   London doesn’t necessarily offer happiness or belongership, but it does offer interest and unpredictability, which can sometimes amount to the same thing.  Famously, you will never be bored in London – there are simply too many variables, too many crazy people, too much money, too many comings and goings and gangs and criminals and saints and sinners and beggars and millionaires.   You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.  Which is why, despite everything, you end up coming back there.    I would never live there anymore – you would have to be crazy to try and make a life there with a modest income and two kids – but I will always be a keen visitor.

And now, living overseas, I feel it more than ever.  It remains distinctly enticing and unknowable – you will never know London as you know a small town or even a small city; your brain will never fully de-mythologise it into a collection of buildings and people – it remains inscrutable, changing shape, quietly upgrading and rebuilding itself.  It retains just enough familiarity to comfort you as you step off a plane from Dubai or Ankara, but also keeps you at arm’s length.   And talking to people overseas, you realise that on rainy days, they too are confident that something exciting is happening in London.

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