I came to live in London not really intending to like it. I resented the fact that it clearly considered itself to be the dazzling sun around which the rest of the country revolved: that unless it took place within the M25, it didn’t really, you know, happen. It was the magazine that came free with the Evening Standard that summed it up for me – the week’s social calendar with all those photos of smug celebs at various glamorous opening nights.
I think, at some level, I wanted a challenge. A known introvert from a town with wide skies and a vast, shimmering expanse of sea, I didn’t think I’d be happy among the hemmed-in crowds. What I didn’t realise then is that within the anonymity of the ever-flowing throng, those shoals of fast-moving fish who swoop and turn as one entity, I could move silently, unobtrusive and unremarkable. Public transport would take me just about anywhere I wished to go; I could be entirely independent. And now I know, too, that sometimes at low tide the Thames smells of brine and seaweed.
My childhood memories of visits to London were good ones. The musty gust of air just before a tube train arrived at the platform, the magically moving escalators in the stations, the mummified Egyptian man curled up like a crumbling leaf within the British Museum. Despite all the dinosaur skeletons and fossils and stuffed animals, my most vivid memory of the Natural History Museum is of my granny desperately trying to open one of those fiddly little plastic milk cartons in the museum’s café. The school trip to the Tower of London had excited all of us nine-year-olds, because we were legitimately allowed to go around saying “Bloody Tower”, and on the coach we’d cawed with laughter as a businessman ran after the bowler hat that had been whipped from his head by a gust of wind. A bowler hat! This man must have been a relic from the fifties. During my A levels, I escaped from a stifling Shakespeare conference to Kensington Market, where I bought a skirt in a shimmering shade of peacock turquoise and a white fake-fur coat that made me look like a hooker. At the National Gallery, I doubled back on myself, half disbelieving as to what I had just seen: at the end of a long corridor, the pale, glowing figure of the doomed Lady Jane Grey seemingly extending from the canvas, hovering in mid-air as she knelt, blindfolded, before the executioner.
Back when I first arrived in London, the freebie mags were called things like Girl About Town, and had advertisements for secretarial positions in the back and the usual girly gossip at the front, mixed in with offbeat, well-written articles on London history. You’ll have your Oxford Street with a Topshop the size of a small planet, these magazines seemed to say, but you’ll also have your blue plaques and your obscure little alleyways and your slowly mouldering gravestones. And for that I was very grateful. Now, of course, the Evening Standard is thrust at commuters with something approaching violence. Sometimes the route from work to tube is a cannonball run. People want to give you things and they want to take things from you. They want you to sign up to their charity, they want to give you hairdressing vouchers, they want you to try paintballing. My first day out in London – on Oxford Street, of course – I was stung by an unscrupulous Hare Krishna for an amateurishly-printed book about whatever it was they were trying to promote. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. But I did learn that day to avoid eye contact: very zen. The book ended up being given to a bookshop run by an elderly metaphysician who’d once had a run-in with Aleister Crowley. It seemed a shame to throw the book away, after I’d paid too much for it.
So, gradually I adapted to my new territory. And, now that I’m a fully paid-up Londoner, I can’t help noticing how often we’re portrayed as a frustrated, miserable breed, spending a substantial part of our lives with our noses trapped within reach of each other’s sweaty armpits, an even greater part in grim office blocks, and a third part paying over the odds for all of these privileges. We’re to be pitied, apparently. But isn’t there a kind of dignity about us? Imagine us going about our routines a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago. We look on fascinated at the quaint, jerky film footage of Edwardian commuters, yet at the time they were just trying to get from A to B. What to us now seems harsh, vulgar and petty will one day itself be history. We too will be subsumed.
So all of London’s apparent trivialities are to be valued, in some abstract, bittersweet way. We’ll miss them when we’re dead. City workers leaning against the walls outside pubs for a couple of early evening pints, men in carefully ironed shirts, women in heels shifting subtly back and forth to take the pressure off one foot, then the other. Kerbs shadowed with dried tides of splashes from vomit or urine or spilled drink. Black blobs of dead, flattened chewing gum patterning the paving slabs. Stagnant rainwater gathering in the dents on top of bus shelters, as seen from the top floor of double-deckers. Cyclists waiting with their feet firm on the downward pedals, straining like greyhounds for the change of the lights. Heat rising off summer pavements in bitter, sour waves; the smell of frying burgers and one-slice pizza places combining like a low-down-dirty drone on a stinky trumpet. Rows and rows of modest late-Victorian terraces converted into top- and bottom-floor flats. Late-night newsagents and off licences with delivery cages chained up outside, always seemingly containing several abandoned loaves of bread. “Obstructing these doors can be dangerous”, with letters scratched out to form the phrase “Obstructing these doors can anger us”.
London is containable only when you have found your place within it, the knowable part of the unknowable whole. As I left the house one morning the landlord of the next-door pub was opening up. “Morning,” he grinned. “Morning,” I grinned. That was all. He knows who I am, and I know who he is. I belong in London now. I belong to London. Revelations often come quietly and unobtrusively.
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 15.]