London of lost content

(…that is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

– A. E Houseman)


Surveyed from my eyrie in The Chilterns, right at the very end of the Metropolitan Line, the quarter century I lived in London seems embedded in another era, maybe as much as a 100 years ago. How the place has changed. All great cities change – rise and fall, live or die. London today is far more cosmopolitan – and far dirtier and noisier. More knowing, less forgiving; a world city but growing heartless, sadly more and more like New York.

It used to be said that London was a collection of villages. When I lived there, respectively, in the villages of Blackheath, Bloomsbury and Islington (or, rather, Barnsbury, which really was is a tiny village tucked inside the madness of Islington), I’d have said that was a simple and obvious truth. I am not so sure now. My last sojourn in the capital was in Bermondsey (anyone spot an aspirational pattern yet?) but that was rapidly changing, principally around the exponential growth in living space prices. It all happened too fast.

It was an earlier version of this current boom that allowed us to escape to the country, so I should complain. And explain.

I don’t live in London anymore but, of course, it still defines whole swathes of my life. I still visit the centre once or twice a week (my current editing work is in Victoria). I note, however, that these days, my behaviour is not what it used to be. But, then again, like an old relationship that flares rarely into bickering or passion, London behaves differently, too.

For a start, a few years ago someone plonked a bloody great bicycle wheel down by the old GLC building, itself now an aquarium and an hotel. The wheel can be seen from the Serpentine, poking above the Treasury. Now here’s a thing: I remember a hot summer’s late Bank Holiday, after a lunch in Shepherd’s Market with a girlfriend, slipping across the waters of that urban lake in a sailing dinghy, hired from the same people who hired out rowing boats and pedaloes. Few believe me, but it is true. They used to keep a pair of Heron dinghies; if you could rig one, you could hire it. Simple, sound common sense.

The magic of sailing in the heart of a great city, on that particular night, will never leave me. We left the dinghy behind and went on to the Proms, I recall. In those days (we are talking 1979) it was the classical music audiences craved. Today – yet this can hardly be a surprise when Paul McCartney and the like are included as classical composers – it seems to be an opportunity to take flash photographs, to clap whenever there is a second’s silence and to be reminded in the intervals, to turn off mobile phones with their own ‘classical’ ring tones competing against the orchestra.

Some things, I suspect, will never change. Horse still canter along Rotten Row; there remain a surprisingly large number of horses in central London. Where we lived in Barnsbury was close to the old metropolitan mounted police school. I only ever rode in central London once – courtesy of a friend who had access to the Civil Service Riding Club. Their stables were then in Buckingham Palace Mews and so, on a late December Sunday, I found myself riding a horse out of the back of Buck House turning left so we could make our way up Constitution Hill to Hyde Park Corner – making our way, in short, right across the front of the palace. Tourists duly clicked their cameras at us.

Hyde Park Corner was a breeze to go around on a horse (there were five of us) because being on horseback gave us both a better view of the traffic, and the traffic a healthy respect for our mounts’ capacity to kick the living shit out of their shiny cars – and black cabs. Everyone gave us a very wide berth indeed.

London’s traffic has changed out of all recognition. I still drive in occasionally but all the old certainties (if I leave Knightsbridge now, I’ll be able to meet you at Kings Cross in 25 minutes) are gone, probably forever. My own cameo of that change also involves horses but in a roundabout way.

I used to teach at a college south of the river – near the Elephant and Castle. One year I had no lectures on a Thursday. My mother-in-law ran a stable in the Chilterns, and she had a ride going out on a Thursday but with no one to lead it. Without much thought, one day I said ‘I’ll take it out’. So, every Thursday at half past eight I would drive in my riding kit out from Barnsbury to the Chilterns, pick up the ‘housewives special’ at ten and ride for 90 minutes in the countryside. I’d then head back into town, arriving at the Eagle pub, tucked in behind the ugly sprawl of that part of south London, dead on time at one for lunch (teaching was scheduled for the afternoon; these were, indeed, civilised times).

I would not even dare contemplate committing myself to that, today. The stress of the driving would destroy any of the fun. And it was fun, not least the sense of mischief in setting my cap at the system. I would have to say that I don’t believe London is as much fun as it used to me – for anyone. There is a sense of everyone pushing themselves too hard: to work, to play, even to have fun; and it shows on their faces. Yet, I would be the first to agree that Tate Modern is fun and the Millennium Bridge – forever wobbly in my mind – is pure fun, as well as being stupendously purposeless.

Part of the fun I used to have in London was walking around it. I taught an American student once who told me she had walked back from King’s Cross to Kensington, as the night was so balmy, and she didn’t want to plunge into the fetid heat of the underground. She had felt perfectly safe all the way (I can date this exactly: it was 1985). I still find pleasure in walking from, say, Marylebone station to Victoria ( a few months ago), but once I walked from Islington to the Elephant – and back.

Today’s traffic spoils much of that – you have to pick the routes so much more carefully and – this is more difficult to define – in taking some of the back streets there is an edginess, just at times, as to whether, even in the daytime, it is safe.

Great cities rise and fall: there is no sense yet in London of falling, not even a tremor right now. But, perchance, a new terror attack of, say, anthrax scattered in the streets, and all could change. A 1940s government test of anthrax spores kept the Scottish island of Gruinard closed for 50 years. I caught myself, just the other day, while walking in town, pondering on that – and the vulnerability of cities.

Like those of its inhabitants, London’s is growing and the innocence of just a few years ago is, I fear, departing. I no longer flinch when I see armed police in the streets. It forces me to recall the time when I was living in Bloomsbury and we heard the distant but quite distinct boom of an IRA bomb (it had gone off four miles away in the West End). Those were the days of anxiously inspecting fellow travellers on the tube for any sign of the mark of terrorist Cain about them. Well, we’re back there alright so maybe, just maybe, other, better things will return.

I mourn however that, like the nightingales of Berkeley Square, the sailing dinghies of the Serpentine, are gone forever.