LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE CITY
One of the nicest, although slightly embarrassing, things about tourists (and about being a tourist) is the eagerness and ready wonder found in the experience of a new city. You see this in London all the time and of course you experience it yourself when abroad. It never quite extends with me to say wanting to actually buy the cd of that South American busker playing delay-pedalled pan pipes to a synthesised backing tape, but it does engender a remarkably childlike enthusiasm for sites and sounds which may well be seen and not noticed at home or to which the locals have long become blunted by over familiarity and repetition. “Sure, but you can’t eat the view” as a denizen of Rome said to me once when I complimented him on living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
I generally like the open mouthed bonhomie and genuinely innocent pleasure of the newly arrived, but there are whole stretches of London where I now feel reluctant to venture: Covent Garden, the South Bank and so on – only because they are so touristed – and yet when I do visit or should stumble there out of hours, of course I see, or re-see, the attraction.
There are other areas of the city which I feel less inclined to visit for different and possibly ‘psycho-geographic’ reasons. The flatlands of Battersea for instance make me feel slightly gloomy and those of Fulham rather irritable (although that may be the preponderance of B list bankers secretly longing to live in Notting Hill) and I have never been keen on the Edgware Road.
But, for world weary citizens of this and probably any other city, it has often struck me that London is most intensely experienced or re-experienced when one is a recently arrived visitor from the State of Love – whether it be in the intoxication of love’s beginning or in the heartbreak of its end. Familiar sites that are taken for granted by all but geographical tourists suddenly become re-suffused with meaning. The concrete and stone ooze significance, soulfulness and the pleasure of anticipation or the poignancy of memory. Particular corners, tube stations, a bench here, a cafe there interlace in a network of symbolic association and emotion that reveals the soul beneath and between the streets and squares. This of course is the city as walked or imagined in the company of another person – whether they be with us in our past, present or future, in actuality or in our imagination or memory
If you are not in such a state, for better or for worse, then the process of intentional discovery seems to help keep things alive – a process I see as a kind of creation of a personal city. Apart from wandering around and finding new places, a favourite pastime of mine has been beach-combing on the foreshore of the Thames at low tide. This is an ancient practice formerly known as ‘Mudlarking’ when carried out professionally by a particular caste of London’s poor. With less pressing reason, we have found many amazing things there – seventeenth century clay pipes, Georgian belt buckles, a Roman coin, an Iron age arrow head, fragments of lovely blue ceramic, and, the other week, an i pod. Today, in one of the lesser known stretches I found a child’s bicycle from the sixties. How did it come there – and when? Why has it emerged from the mud just now? Where is its young owner these days? Did he or she weep to see it fall?
On the morning after an evening in Shoreditch (now, crossed off my list of places to like) when my own bike was stolen, this discovery presented a synchronistic reminder of the, ahem, cyclical nature of the urban environment – particularly as last night’s crime occourred as we sat watching a performance by Paper Cinema involving projected images of the city, dreaming and bicycling.
These lost cycles remind me that as well as defining one’s own London, it seems like an important thing too to mourn and mark the passing of loved things here. Sure, the city has always been in flux but if we don’t notice – or don’t care as it changes – then what does that say about our relationship with it? This year the amazing, unique Shunt vaults under London Bridge will be smashed to bits and a piece of Borough Market will get chewed up so that a priapic glass tower can be raised above. (London really needs more open plan office space for financial institutions at the moment right?). I noticed the other day that the funny little Battersea Barge where we used to play peculiar shows and where we had an amazing midsummer’s party a few years back has quietly and mysteriously vanished – victim no doubt to the encroaching strip of ticky-tacky apartment buildings marching west up the southern river bank. I am sure the people who do these things really don’t love the city – or if they do it’s in the way of a one night stand rather than a passionate ongoing affair.
But, like all love affairs, even if you do love London, it is a romance that will end someday. Even if it should survive and flourish despite the over familiarity and the stresses and fights and the ongoing habitual routines, in the end you will eventually perhaps just grow weary and move away or, if not that, you will certainly die. Oh and that reminds me: up until the 1940s there was a dedicated rail service and train line from Waterloo to Brooklands cemetery in Surrey run by ‘The Necropolis Railway Company’ upon which the carefully casketed citizen could gracefully embark upon their final journey accompanied for a little while by their mourners.
What a lovely way to leave.