Dear London, You confuse me so much. How can you give so much with one hand and then slap me in the face with the other? I remember the first time I visited you. It was the lead-up to Christmas. The weather was cold and crisp, perfect actually. Everyone had told me it would rain and rain but no, it didn’t. The Christmas decorations in Regent Street stretched lightly across the beautiful, curving Georgian street, which was alive with people carrying bags full of gifts. I saw a man carrying a Christmas tree home on the tube – it made everyone smile. I went to Marylebone High Street and watched the turning on of the Christmas lights; it was a true English village atmosphere with carol-singers, families wandering around the stalls selling gifts and mulled wine, shopkeepers watching form their doorways, the traffic blocked off. Then the lights turned on, a cheer went up, and it really felt like Christmas.
Sure, it was only November. A bit early perhaps. Then again, no-one could accuse you of not maximising the festive season, London. Some cynics say it is just about getting drunk at office parties and making money, and the headlines on all the papers do scream about the volume of sales the shops are making. And when I looked closely at the faces in Regent Street, they appeared quite stressed as they fought through the crowds. And there was that woman who screamed at me in John Lewis when I stood in the wrong place to queue for the till. And yes, I nearly burst into tears at her unpleasant attack. Perhaps she’d just had a bad day. And I myself was exhausted; you are very tiring to be around, London, with all your jostling and rushing and noise and dirt. I think the thing that surprised me most on that first visit was getting home and blowing my nose to find black gunk in my tissue. I’m sorry if that’s too graphic but it is a bit of an indication that you may not be the healthiest to be around. But then I think of all your parks, your huge lungs. Regents Park, Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common, Greenwich – parks everywhere, some of them quite wild and fantastic. Wandering on the lush green grass and suddenly seeing a lake full of ducks, or a wonderful sculpture, a dog chasing a ball, a group of friends playing football, the dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park, the swimming ponds in Hampstead Heath, or the palace where Princess Diana lived – there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. I can spend hours watching squirrels twitch their tails as they forage for nuts and seeds, although these days they risk getting stuck in discarded lunch bags left lying around by tourists and office workers. Last Easter I visited and you turned on snow. It was magical! And unusual – enough to actually sit on the ground – and during March! I loved it. Although it did mean my train to visit a friend in Brighton was delayed for three hours. Snow is only a bit of cold water! And the tickets for your trains are really expensive. There was another time I was on a train delayed by rain! And remember that time your excuse was leaves on the track! That was an hour stuck in London Fields. I had just read Martin Amis’s London Fields so you might have done it on purpose, but, come on, a five minute delay would have been enough to give me that small thrill. The other 55 minutes sitting just outside the station were a little trying. Especially when the locals got restless – I guess that sort of thing happens to them quite often judging by the colourful things they were saying.
I have to say this sort of behaviour does make me unable to trust your transport system a little. Getting to any of your airports (or anywhere to a time limit) is one of the most stressful journeys in the whole world because I can never be quite sure whether the public transport will be working or not. There was the time I became complacent and timed my journey to Heathrow perfectly. But when I got to Paddington Station, the Heathrow Express was not working (leaves? There was no rain…) and getting to the Piccadilly line tube was too time consuming and the tube takes at least an hour to Heathrow compared to the 15 minutes I’d allocated for the Express. I rushed to the taxi queue – along with a whole trainload of people. Luckily a nice woman – not English I’m sorry to say – suggested we share so that halved the cost; only about 45 pounds each to get there! She still missed her plane. I just made mine. Is this the time to mention your terrible traffic problems? The cost of taxis – of anything – really is something we need to discuss. It does put me off coming to see you more often. Then again there are so many free things to do, like walking and exploring the tangle of lanes in the City of London, discovering history, following the river, visiting the many free galleries and looking at masterpieces of art, sitting in a centuries old church and listening to the organist practice, going to free talks and events – there’s so much happening that there is always something to do, even without a lot of money.
There are also the surprising random acts of kindness, for example, the taxi driver who gave me a lift home the night I caught the wrong bus in Brixton and ended up walking. He stopped and when I told him I had no cash, he drove me home for free; he felt it was too dangerous for me to walk alone in that area at night. And the number of knife crimes and murders currently happening in south London does distress me. There is a lot of unhappiness, and loss of hope raging under your surface London. But there is positivity as well, people trying to make a difference. I always buy the Big Issue from the street sellers, homeless people being given a way out of the poverty trap. And the buskers in the tube station really make a difference to your day. In fact, a CD of the music of London Underground buskers was released a few years ago and it’s really good. And my favourite new thing:
The School of Life, devoted to understanding and making life better through philosophy, talks, books.
I am always delighted when I see the social commentary graffiti by Banksy. Your most famous – and still anonymous – street artist, his stencil artworks always have a message, a comment about you. And they have been allowed to stay on walls, embraced by the city in fact. Well, the ones that haven’t recently been sold by profiteers to international art collectors willing to pay a fortune to have slabs of concrete walls removed, so these pieces of public art can be hidden away in private. Anything for a buck, eh, London?
And you really do seem driven by money. It’s such a shame that despite all you have to offer, people seem to spend most of their time in the high street shops, or at work, or travelling to and from work, or with their noses stuck in magazines which tell them what they Must Have. Often on the tube or the bus, I just enjoy looking at all the people – you are such a melting pot London – and try to imagine all the stories. Then again, this can get me into trouble – remember the guy who touched me on the tube, quite horrible and scary when I thought he might try to follow me. And that ugly verbal fight between two women on a bus the other day? Such aggression and disregard for their children’s distress. I can understand why people take refuge in reading the many free metro newspapers and cocooned with their iPods – although I was warned not to use the standard white headphones because it signals to thieves it’s an iPod and you’re likely to be robbed. Urban myth or not, stories like this don’t help you, London. And the real tipping point of the relationship for me: the day I saw an old lady slumped on a bench in Oxford Street. Was she okay? No one stopped to find out. And I have to admit I didn’t cross the road to help either – the whole thing instilled by this city about not getting involved, about being sued, about always being in a hurry. To this day, I regret it.
I realised I didn’t like what knowing you so well had done to me, London. But now I am wiser to your tricks, more alert to my own safety in a huge metropolis. The relationship is more part-time. And I think you make a better lover than husband. So, I’ll keep coming to see you, London, but there are some areas you really need to take a long hard look at yourself and pull up your socks. Sometimes I just wish you weren’t so charming. St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery, the Tower of London, Soho, the Changing of the Guards, the creaking floorboards in Liberty echoing years of high heels and the gleaming ship windvane on the roof, your bridges and your architecture – how can I stay away? You’re a difficult and expensive habit to break. I still don’t know whether I love you or hate you. But I do know I can’t keep away from you. See you soon. –Philippa