I do like to be a Londoner
There’s been so many uplifting moments this past few weeks. There’s been a few challenging episodes too, including one I’d rather forget in a SW16 Tesco store, when I asked fellow shoppers why they weren’t wearing a protective mask. Don’t ask…
London’s never entirely peaceful. I wouldn’t want it to be, nor should it be. It’s an assault on the senses, and that’s why I sometimes wonder whether living here is still for me. Especially when I’m sat on a Victoria line and there’s a high pitched squeal as trains press against the tracks. It’s possibly the ear-popping sound a newly vacuumed insect hears as it shoots up a hoover’s nozzle.
There’s the peep of the Thames Clippers – some of them are now known as Uber Boats – and the distant whistle of late night, or waking trains. It’s the heeep sound of my childhood, when sleeping in my bedroom looking north to Junction 24 on the M25, I’d hear these whistles reverberate through hundreds of trees.
There’s the odd snippets of conversation, eavesdropped on, as I walk from Clerkenwell to Blackfriars, or jog along the Albert Embankment;
“That’s the problem with a Hard Brexit: I’ll be posted in Frankfurt”
“What the fuck are you doing, you c***s?”
Unfortunately, the latter episode – a rare occasion where I bit my tongue and stepped to one side – saw a drunk cyclist twisting on a Boris Bike as he nearly collided with two mirthful tourists. They weren’t blameless, but nor was he.
Edgy and electric
London is edgy and electric.
I immaturely follow a young Portuguese bloke on Twitter and Instagram who posts x-rated content to his Only Fans channel – stuff I wouldn’t talk to the Queen about. He goes cruising in Burgess Park, which seems rather dangerous in the middle of a pandemic. Passing the park on the 363 bus to visit a friend in Crystal Palace , I imagined him and his friends, baseball caps tilted, their nylon shorts lowered, as they frolicked and, yes, felched. All on a rather grey English summer’s day. Quentin Crisp might not have approved.
Sat on the top deck of the bus, I carried on, and the reeds passed me by. I had an afternoon date with Mr Kipling’s chocolate slices and a weak cup of tea, (my friend’s boyfriend has been in England for many years, but still doesn’t know how to brew a builder’s cup of tea).
It was so good to meet my friend as I shared unvarnished truths that, abroad, can only be hinted at over the phone. We passed the dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park and walked to the stage where Bob Marley was once in concert, and next, to the sphinxes and straw-coloured verge where the famous Crystal Palace sadly burned down.
A week or so before, M and I walked one heady, humid night from Haggerston to Clerkenwell Green. Google Maps, seemingly less and less reliable these days, directed us via countless estates with twitching street lamps. I paced along but could have easily ambled too, as I’m drawn to the concrete slabs and twelve-storey blocks: street landscapes found in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.
But then, another day, we took a wrong turn somewhere between Stockwell and Battersea. We got lost in a dystopian mess of construction sites close to Nine Elms. Yes, the Bakerloo line is being extended here and there’s lots of investment – but it’s money being spaffed on absurd projects, centred around penthouses and office space when all recent evidence suggests they’ll sit empty and idle. I do wonder what locals think, how much more isolated they’re prepared to be and cut off they will be from London’s lifeblood, the River Thames. As we traced the pedestrian trail out of New Covent Garden Market, we longed for the relative serenity of nearby Battersea Park with its peaceful Pagoda and position overlooking the Albert Bridge.
The grit I favour
I was aware how snobbish I was being – favouring London’s arcadian strolls. What rubbish it is to claim I love London’s grit, I thought to myself. I love some of it – the urban vision of previous eras, Erno Goldfinger’s brutalism, for example. But not the Boris Johnson-sanctioned projects rubber-stamped when he was City Mayor. Not the aesthetic affront to SW boroughs, the projects the big boy developers are guilty of, creating obscene towers out scaling all neighbouring installations. Think for example of the residents of Bonnington Square, an oasis of calm in Vauxhall, located on a former World War II bomb site, but now lorded over by ugly high-rises a couple of hundred metres to the north.
The city seems to me to be at a precarious point, both in terms of its loss of income and the ongoing threats posed to its residents’ health and livelihoods, but in terms of its identity, too, as urban planning seems in some areas to be out of control. What’s worked in terms of its incongruity in the past is that styles and shapes mixed and shifted, but critically, there was a consensus in favour of medium and low-rise buildings, so whatever else jarred, it wasn’t buildings’ size. Now cockneys and the oldest residents have genuine complaints about gentrification and the hostile erasure of their afternoon skies.
The loss of much else
M and I went to Spitalfields Market, which is sterile but convenient when there’s rain. To be fair, there’s a few decent features, including fabulous street food. We took a selection of Japanese bean buns and one that was filled with the tangiest and zippiest lychee ice cream.
That has to be the second best thing I’ve tasted on this trip to London. The best was a grilled sourdough toast with truffled cheese, grilled mushrooms and Canadian bacon. I went with a close friend to Morty & Bob’s in impressive, but strangely soulless Coal Drop’s Yard.
Anyway, back to Spitalfields.
We got talking to a market trader who after thirty years, said she’s ready to pack it all in this September. Business is terribly slow. And what’s worse, the greedy developers who own Spitalfields want to kick out a bunch of the traditional market traders and their uniquely interesting stalls, and in their place, extend the space afforded to people who want to eat at Giraffe and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, at a stroke emptying Spitalfields of its last remaining – interesting – feature.
London is a love affair
London’s frustrating and beguiling. In the end she doesn’t massively care whether you love her or not, she’ll keep reinventing herself, attracting newcomers, even as others are repelled.
There’s the villages that form the shape of an inverted half crescent moon, from Primrose Hill, to Belsize Park, Hampstead South End Green, ending with Kenwood and next, Highgate Village. Back round again, you reach Highgate Ponds, apparently now only open to those who pay for the privilege of an early morning swim, and you get to Kentish Town, Camden, Somers Town, Bloomsbury, Holborn.
I can walk for hours through surprise city squares that I never knew existed. There’s the gems I mentally store away for future visits: to the Horniman’s museum and gardens, incidentally not faraway from cruisy Burgess Park. There’s Charles Dickens’ house not far from Great Ormond Street – how come I’ve never visited? There’s the new Everyman at King’s Cross – when will it be safe to visit?
And then there’s the cornucopia of bookshops which are better than any fashion store or chocolatier. Although chocolatiers do run them close. Gay’s the Word and Daunt Books are favourites, my gosh, how I want to gobble all the words up – there’s the books I haven’t read (zillions) and the hundreds I’ve already bought, and in a Japanese fit of tsundoku, hoard on my bedside or store in friends’ garages, never to be picked up again. What a blooming waste.
In the end, I’m in a lifelong love affair. It’s not without its downsides, and although this trip is nearing its end, I do soon hope to be back.