A Love Letter to London
This week I start the process of moving to Seattle. I’ve been very lucky where I’ve lived, growing up in Yorkshire (God’s own county™) then university in Liverpool and Scotland. This was all followed by twelve unforgettable years in Dublin, a city that in many ways I still view of as home. Eleven years ago I moved, with no small amount of hesitation to London. As a good northerner I came to London with a large dose of wariness. Northern preconceptions still at the fore meant that I approached the big smoke anticipating a self-centred, soulless behemoth that would no doubt spit me out in a few years-times after stripping me of everything of value.
However, eleven years later I leave after falling in love. London’s not perfect but no place is. Yes its inhabitants can be abrupt, but it is an honest abruptness. You have to understand that it does actually say quite clearly that you should stand on the right! I’ll admit it does takes time to get used to a place where with the exception of family, close friends and work colleagues you never see the same person twice. It can therefore often be a lonely place, as I once heard described, “a labyrinth of lost souls”. I was single the first four years I was here simply because I hadn’t grasped that dating in London requires a level of immediacy, even brashness, something this introvert found hard to come to terms with. My string of disastrous blind dates and tales of woe did however provide endless entertainment for my friends.
Yes, it is a big sprawling mass and that can make it intimidating and impersonal. However, once you get to know her, understand what makes her tick, you realise that this is actually what makes London beautiful. It means that whoever you are, whatever your likes and dislikes, you can find a bit of this metropolis that you will love. Everyone can feel an affinity with some part of London. That is the beauty. You can also, most of the time, manage to avoid the bits that you hate. Oh yes, there are bits of London I despise. If I never see Victoria Station again in my life I’m not going to shed any tears.
I will miss the South Bank, Marylebone, Spitalfields, Soho and the hidden alleyways of the City. I even have a soft spot for Canary Wharf. However, Greenwich is my London. After initially living in Poplar (“a potentially vibrant neighbourhood”) I’ve spent nearly nine years living alongside the Royal Observatory, Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, Wren’s magnificant Naval College, Greenwich market (despite the council’s best attempts to mess it up), and the park. I know I’m biased but Greenwich Park is by far the most beautiful in London. It has everything all the other parks have and more, from wide open spaces to the flower garden to hidden little valleys. Together with Blackheath it forms the most incredible public space, and for the last four years it has been an extended back yard for Nathaniel, Thomas and Abigail. Oh, and let’s not forget that Greenwich is the centre of time itself. I have during these years adopted the natural indignation South Londoners have about the lack of infrastructure we have to endure compared to our pampered cousins north of the river. For your own safety and sanity please don’t strike up a conversation with us about the trains.
This is the thing about this city, its size and scale makes everyone’s London unique. There are still parts of west and north London I’ve never been near. It also means that everyone has secret places, those bits away from the tourist spots, places you only reveal to your closest friends. Alison Stevenson introduced me to the Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace Park and who knew that New Cross has a load of great bars? I didn’t until I was introduced to them by Fotis Mouzakis. The vastness becomes its greatest treasure as you are for ever discovering somewhere and something new. It also means that one of the great delights London has to offer is going back to somewhere you haven’t been in a while and being blown away and wondering why you don’t come here all the time.
That scale has also meant that some of the best nights out I’ve had have been purely accidental, getting lost and ending up in places that I doubt I could find again, pop up bars and places too trendy for their own good in Shoreditch and Hoxton. My personal favourite was finding myself at 2am in a place that by day was a Thai restaurant, and not a posh one at that; formica tables and faded 1970’s pictures of Bangkok on the wall. However, by night it was a club playing the best early seventies soul and funk. As everyone who knows me will tell you, there is nothing that will get me onto a dance floor quicker than the intro to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. As for gigs, so many memorable evenings in so many iconic venues, The Pogues at Brixton Academy, Massive Attack at Hammersmith, the Miserable Rich at the Slaughtered Lamb, Laura Marling at some church behind Kings Cross which myself, Nikki Dumbleton and Ben Sawtell took an age to find. The Pogues come close but for purely personal reasons the Arctic Monkeys come top, despite them playing at that impersonal cow shed that is Wembley Arena, by far the worst music venue in this city.
Have I mentioned that London is also just simply beautiful? It may not be as pretty and uniform as some European cities, have the natural beauty of Rio, have a harbour to compare with Sydney or Hong Kong or be as imposing as 1930s midtown Manhattan. Let’s be honest it is a bit of a mess in places. But it still takes my breath away standing on Waterloo Bridge looking east to the City and West to Westminster. So do half a dozen views from Greenwich Park. Many people don’t realise that London has the most incredible sunsets and sunrises. The number of times I’ve come into London Bridge on the train in a morning and the sky to the east has been golden. This is a city that inspires. How many great songs have been written about her? From the Clash’s “London Calling” to the Pogues “Rainy Night in Soho” to hidden gems like Blur’s “Under the Westway” and Luke Haines' "Love Letter to London". It is though hard to beat “Waterloo Sunset” which captures London so beautifully.
My relationship with London has changed over the last six years. It has mainly consisted of commuting through it and then out to Reading. This, together with the small matter of three children has meant that I don’t go out and about as much as I used to. But the cross London commuting has highlighted how the tube, trains and buses act as a great equaliser, people from all social backgrounds and incomes stood side by side on public transport. A good game to play on the tube is to guess who is a Londoner. You realise quickly not just how diverse this city is but what makes it what it is. Everyone can belong here, everyone can be a Londoner. Just get off a plane or a train and after a couple of days commuting you’re a Londoner, or at least as much as one as most people living here. Forget the domestic blow-ins like myself, 35% of Londoners are from outside the UK. I know this has contributed to the divide that currently exists between it and parts of the UK, especially following the EU referendum, but it is something that gives the London I love its character.
So what will I miss the miss the most? Charlotte Bronte talked about the “….spirit of this great London which I feel around me”. However, for me it is far more personal. Nathaniel, Thomas and Abigail may grow up with American accents but I leave here with three permanent reminders of this city, mine and Alison’s three little Londoners.