Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A love letter for London

In some ways it was the first place I ever knew. Seventeen, sick and living in a box-room belonging to an octogenarian friend of the family, every day once I was just about well enough not to have to sleep in hospital overnight I would wake up at five and tiptoe down the street and go underground. I've always thought of the London Underground as not quite of this world. It has its own newspapers and its own weather, its strange warm winds blowing from tunnels deep in the groaning belly of the city. Step out of the tube and you are older, by twenty minutes or a whole lifetime; you are different; you have left something of your old self, your anxious, night-time, dreaming self down in the racket and thunder of the trains and the harsh bright never-dawn of rolling rubbish and advertising hoardings.

I was born in London, and though my family moved away when I was small, I grew up longing for the city. Some of us do. The rabbit-bitten fields and sun-kissed cycle paths that my parents were so thrilled for their daughters to grow up with held no interest for me. I wanted the smell of diesel and the rain throwing up soot on the pavements. I wanted lights that never went out and streets to swagger down. I went to sleep in the owl-hooting dark, dreaming of the syphilitic rattle of urban pigeons.

More than anything, I wanted the tube. Every time we went to London for a visit, I could happily have ridden the underground all day. I wanted to lose myself in the dark and mouse-running scramble of crammed-together humanity and come up again in the light. I liked being one of the sardine people, even in rush hour, even at my height, which was and remains about armpit height on the average commuter. Late at night, the platforms echo with the memory of thousands of city dwellers huddled together for shelter with the bombs of the Blitz overhead. Catching the last Bakerloo line home, you can almost see them, out of the corner of your eye, through the cracks in history: propped against one another, mindlessly tired.

The tube is London's psychic sewer system. The somatic debris of life in a late capitalist megatropolis drifts through and drains away here down tunnels garish with adverts for car insurance and cosmetic surgery. Knackered commuters grip their seats or cling to the upright poles, avoiding one another's eyes. And yet it's also the one place in the whole county where the power of organised labour can and does bring a city juddering to a halt on a regular basis, the one place where workers, by and large, expect to be treated like dignified human beings. Tube strikes are as regular and marvellous and irritating as the yearly snowfall which turns London into a hushed, glittering white fairyland of treacherous ice and broken transport links and adults freaking out like excited toddlers, turning up their faces to catch the fat flakes before they soak into the grime.

London is a place of contradictions.

The process of living here is one big game of unseeing. I have not visited another world city where different lives mesh and interweave so intricately without ever touching, rich and poor. In China Mieville's novel 'The City and The City,' two cities occupy the same physical space, and citizens must avoid 'breaching' the psychic gap at all costs. When the book came out in 2010, there was much speculation as to what city it was supposed to represent - Belfast? Jerusalem? Berlin as was? - but for me it's clearly about London, consciously or unconsciously, the city of parts which breaks into all of Mieville's work, as it does with any writer who lives here for very long.

London is more than two cities. It is many cities. It is the city and the city and the city and the city, a delicate, dirty palimpsest of history layered on history. A city where kids with hoods and hopeless eyes can start burning police cars and looting the high streets and the question on the lips of the broadsheet writers and politicians who live and work a few streets away can still be: where the hell did these people come from?

They come from London, just like you.

I have been in love with this city all my life, and it has taken me on marvellous adventures and it has come close to crushing me. No lover has ever betrayed me like London. Being poor and homeless and despairing here is not like being poor and homeless and despairing anywhere else. I have seen this city swallow friends whole, chew down its young for the meat and life under the skin and spit them out old and traumatised. London does this. You plonk your youth like an offering on the steps of Liverpool Street Station and you just have to hope the city will leave you a life worth living as it slurps up the marrow of your dreams. I will never forgive it. I will never stop loving it.

But it's all got a bit much lately, what with the total policing and the hysterical run-up to the Olympics. I need a break, and I'm fucked if I'm going to the country. London and I need some time apart. I've saved up some money and I'm leaving today tooff to see other cities for a while, starting with New York, which is a great floozie of a town with a far inferior subway system. But I'll be back, because it'll take more than godawful tea and all-night cupcake shops to make me forget where I come from. I come from the best city in the world ever. I come from London.

49 comments:

  1. Some lovely imagery here. Can't say I share your affection for the Tube tho.

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  2. Your finest work for some time. Well done. Enjoyed it immensely.

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  3. Catching the last Bakerloo line home, you can almost see them, out of the corner of your eye, through the cracks in history: propped against one another, mindlessly tired.

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

    Have fun in NYC, and say hello to the Brooklyn Transit museum for me.

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    1. didnt china mieville also write a book called Un Lun Dun?

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  4. I too am London born, and after forty years I too felt I needed a break from "the greatest city in the world", so I went off to discover other cities. I'm here to warn you: you can never go home. From time to time I return to visit - and it feels like she's moved on, forgotten all about me. I feel like a bloody tourist. And so I am resigned to discovering other cities for the remainder of my life - but at least I knew her, and she knew me...

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    1. I understand this feeling completely, except for me, it's another city : Hong Kong. I spent the first 15 years of my life there before moving to London. I so longed to go home, but whenever I visited I felt like a tourist. Like the city was an old friend who'd forgotten my name; but I realised I'd also forgotten a lot about her & I the old face I once knew had changed so much, it just wasn't the HK I knew. But this is what city life is like! It's almost transient.
      But as one love life with London ends, mine is beginning in a few months when I move there again - returning again after a 10 year break. I'm certainly nervous & I hope she'll be kind to me. But I look forward to exploring more cities out there. Keep moving! It's a wonderful privilege.

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  6. I love working in New York - and I get a rare and precious weekend here this time - but I will be very glad to return to my beloved London in ten days' time.

    And everybody's got a different reason for loving our city. Or several. Or an entire life of love and hate and frequent exasperation and occasional joy, and those daily gems of "I never knew that!"

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  7. 'I have seen this city swallow friends whole, chew down its young for the meat and life under the skin and spit them out old and traumatised. London does this.'

    Huh. I thought it was time that did that.

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  8. If you want to go to a cool Western Cities try Christchurch NZ! I would also go to Mumbai

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  9. What a delicious, and just paeon of praise for grubby old London. I visited somewhere completely different yesterday - Bungay, in Suffolk, which is a dreamy place locked in a 1950s time warp. But on the way in there is a sign that proudly proclaims:
    Bungay. A fine old town
    Now that's a description that fits London to a T.

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  11. A fine piece, one of your best.

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  12. Another great piece! - looking forward to your writing from New York. It would be great if you could visit Moscow or St Peters. on your travels and let us know your views in the same rich vocabulary with the same passion..

    For me New York is boring (with the exception of broadway of course) a wander across to the other coast on the "overground" might be more interesting.

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  13. Top notch piece, lavish imagery, beautiful writing. And it just about made me fall out of my chair for reasons I'll explain if you indulge me a moment. I'm a Bangkok and formerly Hong Kong based journalist and mag writer (done 10 years in both cities). Three months ago I was commissioned by the Asian Literary Review to do one half of a cover story for an issue themed on cities, in which I would argue against cities while the other writer sang their praises. ALR was a kind of Asian Granta-wannabe that went bust just before my story was to appear. Figuring it would never see the light of day following a 'dear john' letter from the surviving under-new-management online-only version, I thought, what the hell, and posted it on my blog this morning. Then this evening I clicked on yours for the first time in a while only to see your brilliant love letter to London. Apart from being wonderful writing, it read like the perfect riposte or companion piece to my tale of falling out of love with the three cities I've known intimately: Brisbane, Hong Kong and Bangkok. I wouldn't be so crass as to link to mine here, but if you're interested at all, google my name and Two Countries One Cistern (my blog) and you'll see it. I wasn't feeling too charitably disposed to cities when i wrote it, having just lost my new home to the Bangkok floods. I'm not some crank trying to hijack your blog - my stuff's been in Time, Sunday Tele mag (UK), Colors, Playboy and Sports Illustrated, so I'm doing OK. I was just so struck by your take on it, and how similar some of your thoughts and imagery was to mine in seeking to evoke the love-hate relationships modern cities force us into. I gather from the above comments you are off to NY, so best of luck and look forward to following how your relationship with another great city unfolds.

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  14. Lovely. Who needs all-night cupcake shops when you can make your own cupcakes? ;) Just teasing.

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  15. Not from London, but miss it dearly. There's lots of Londons in my head, the bit I saw in '77 over four days (diesel-smelling, scammed in Trafalgar Square, playing the coin machine with pound coins, too young for beer, blast it), Monty Python, Beatles, Dr. Johnson and Pepys and Patrick O'Brian. Then there's the movies like Lavender Hill Mob, School for Scoundrels and Notting Hill and BJ's Diary. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell comics (now his daughter's living there).

    Sorry for the ramblings, but you're not the only one missing London.

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  16. Beatiful, grimy yet exhilarating - your writing is like London itself! Well done on a post that made me very homesick.
    I've always been a big city girl, and came to London as a student, loving every minute of this busy, cruel but also charming place. Then I had to go for a year abroad, to an idyllic little medieval university town in Germany. I thought I would lose my mind with boredom and loneliness. I would sneak back for brief weekend trips to London and stay with a frien in student halls near Goodge Street. I remember climbing up on the toilet to open the little window and catch a glimpse of the lit-up BT Tower and hear the wails of the ambulances and fire-engine. Then I would ignore the banging on the toilet door, breathe in deeply the fumes of the London buses and say to myself: 'Ah, I feel alive once more!'

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  22. Londoners are used to people who didn't grow up here trying to appropriate it, anthropomorphise it, fetishise it like this. But it'll never be yours, it'll never give you what you want. If you belonged here, you wouldn't need to go on about it. This very declaration of your love for it, with its self-consciousness and falsehoods marks you out as an outsider and an interloper. Which maybe is the very point you were trying to make....

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  23. As a londoner I love this-so well written and absolutely true x

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  30. China Mieville for the Socialist review three years ago. Never say I'm not good to you. And that's it from me, I'm now going to go and gorge myself on booze and chocolate in the best British fashion. Merry non-denominational festivities to all, and bollocks to all that. china manufacturing

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