Well, I’m down here, and have managed to drink in or at least wander through Soho, Knightsbridge, Islington, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Hampstead, Brixton, Clapham and Hyde Park – and slapping my forehead every half mile at the details I got wrong in my fiction.
I don’t flatter myself into the belief that I have even scratched the surface of this city, but it’s not bad for a recovering agoraphobic on a five-day visit. I’m also happy that I was able to drink with people who I know only from correspondence and social networks. These new friends were as fascinating and generous in person as they are on page and screen – more, even.
What scared me in preconception was the Shard, the Eye, the palace and the tourist shit, the sweep and pomp of The Apprentice opening credits. What I found was that London is in large part a series of quarters, pockets and villages, all connected by the tube, that equivalent of Manchester’s cycle paths that service the secret city. The Underground was a little intense at first – you have to get past the conceptual freakout of being under the entire city – but, once past this, I found the lines quick and easy and even relaxing. The London attitude people talk about, the angry and careless bad manners (‘Out of my way, somewhere to be, don’t have time’) I didn’t experience at all. In fact the first night I was there a couple of goth women struck up a long conversation with me about the book I was reading on the Victoria Line (Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe – that one is definitely due the Classic Books treatment).
I always thought cities are the best place for a fiction writer. All life and material is here. A few loose thoughts and impressions:
Hampstead is lovely, a little bohemian village with loads of pubs and Saturday night drinkers but somehow no Saturday night hassle. In fact this gives the atmosphere an eerie edge of silent and ruthless surveillance. You get the impression of a roving border force somewhere, which with quiet and effective activity keeps the wrong elements out of town. I heard that Big Issue sellers were cleared, and that there was a big community campaign against a McDonalds branch that resulted in the opening being cancelled. Or at least maybe they had to introduce a Bruschetta McMuffin, and do the golden arches in wrought iron and cursive script.
In Islington a friend took me to a pub where Orwell used to drink. The friend also told me that the stereotype of the gated liberal community is outdated – apparently Islington is the fourth poorest borough in London, has huge problems with housing. I don’t know if Brixton has housing problems, but it certainly seemed overcrowded. I was staying near the market, which ran more or less constantly and at which you could buy pretty much everything – I particularly liked the big snails, sold from a bucket at three pound a throw, which are imported from Nigeria and apparently taste really good if you’re making stew. From the place I was staying you get woken up by cries that sound like andele, andele, andele, hello! The atmosphere is great to walk around in except Wednesdays, which appear to be designated Street Preacher Day. A guy outside the flat with a Bible and a scarf saying LION OF JUDAH, screaming hellfire and redemption. Passing an old woman shrieking outside the tube entrance, I thought that, whatever faith does to sustain these people, it doesn’t seem to make them happy.
Knightsbridge was the only part of London I didn’t like. A nightmare of tall buildings, multi-lane traffic, expensive screamy shopfronts which somehow manage to be twee, quaint and vulgar at the same time – man, I thought, how could anyone work here, let alone live here? I thought of all the people who had to maintain these stores on sub living wage, and felt a new sympathy with the Harrods Santa who, fired just before the gig, aced a bottle of whisky and changed the storefront light patterns so that the words ‘FUCK OFF’ were emblazoned in gigantic storefront letters to the bemusement of passing Iowan tourists and the servants of Russian oligarchs. If that didn’t happen in the Knightsbridge branch, it should have. If I were a King, I would have the palace transported, brick by brick, to Brixton and when politicians wanted to talk to me they could cross the damn river.
It was only at that point where I got the presentiments of panic. I often do feel anxiety without any real stimulus. In emotional repose I get to a kind of exalted wariness. But I raise a smile, and think of Sam Vimes in the desert, flexing his fist around a burning coal. Doesn’t that hurt, someone asks him. Of course, Vimes says. The trick is not to mind that it hurts.