Three years on from moving to Poole from SE9, I am sometimes asked if I miss London. My answer to this is invariably, “No, not at all. Well… I miss central London.” And it’s true – there is a not a lot I miss about suburban London (which is not to say I didn’t appreciate where I lived, or have a lot of friends and connections there, or find it very hard to leave); and the reality is that most of the 32 London boroughs are rather unexciting suburbia. Poole is an altogether more attractive and interesting place in which to live. But I have always loved central London – that small patch at the heart of the great suburban city.
So it was good to be in London on a spring day (which is when London looks its best) for the Everything Conference on Saturday. The conference itself was a great success, and it was a privilege to have a small part to play in it. And it felt very good to be in the heart of Westminster. Apparently some people had been put off attending because of the TUC march that was happening at the same time, but for me that simply added to the buzz of the day.
On Friday evening, after an Everything dinner, I hired one of Boris Johnson’s bikes (didn’t have those three years ago) and cycled along the South Bank, to Westminster Bridge, across to Parliament Square (which I raced around a couple of times), up to Buckingham Palace, and then down the Mall to Trafalgar Square, before parking the bike at Charing Cross.
That was a lot of fun.
The tang of spring, and the thousands of people filling the streets, and the general throb of the city created an energy that was pretty irresistible.
At the Everything dinner I had a rather strong debate with a researcher for BBC radio – she defending such appalling offerings as Woman’s Hour and You & Yours, me lamenting Radcliffe & Maconie being given the boot from Radio 2. (Apparently – the researcher explained – Radcliffe & Maconie only appeal to people who are interested in music, and Radio 2 listeners do not fall into this category.) One program we did not debate was Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, but this is one of my favourites. Bragg is also a fan of central London, and I rather liked this description of his perambulations in this weeks IOT newsletter:
Off, then, down Regent Street where spring has sprung wonderfully. In Cumbria the lambs, freed from snow, are gambolling; in London, the brave souls who sat at pavement tables in winter are now glowing in the sun; and everywhere the sap is rising!
Time to hurry about St James’s Park, already in mid-morning crowded with troops of schoolchildren, although never too crowded to be visited. Blossom out in full now, daffodils still flourishing, pelicans still pecking their downy chests; everything sparkling because the sun has got his hat on and has come out to play. At last.
Into the Westminster Abbey complex to find the Jerusalem Chamber where I’m to be interviewed. It’s quite extraordinary to be inside the Abbey buildings – let alone the Abbey itself. You can feel its presence as a community separate from all that goes on around it and yet feeling central to it. Boys from Westminster School in their grey jerseys and grey trousers playing football on the lawn. People in various degrees of clerical dress, swanning around the yards and the closes on their way into, or out of, the Abbey itself. Higgledy-piggledy stairs. And the wonderful Jerusalem Chamber with its magnificent tapestries and its history, including being one of the places where the King James Bible was finalised.
Out on the pound again to Victoria Station to renew my senior railcard. What volumes of people there are on the pavements. What an extraordinary number of different shops. A cigar shop that looks as if it came out of Dickens – no, way, way before Dickens; the scent of Dr Johnson emanates from its interior. And a little side street market, wall-to-wall as brisk and Cockney as anything in the East End. What a swirl of a place it is. Some shops are quite cosy and local – little barbers’ shops, little sandwich shops – some are achingly huge. There’s Westminster Cathedral on the left, standing back splendidly in its own courtyard; there’s the Victorian Apollo Theatre on the right with – still invaded by the North – Billy Elliot. And on to the concourse of Victoria Station. When is it not thronging, as if every hour was rush hour? Sometimes the centre of London seems about to burst. The pavements are already not broad enough. I tried to sum it up in a word or two, the word which was the common denominator of everybody I passed. I’m quite sure it would be “intent”. But intent on what? Themselves? Not bumping into others? Their phones, often snugly held to the ear? From above, it must look even more like that scene so disparaged by Orson Welles in The Third Man, where he callously talks about the ants (is it ants?) down there on the ground who don’t matter. And yet no face different. A world of its own really. More snatches of foreign languages than the English language.
Brilliant! And yes, I miss that London.