Had a couple of magical days in town, reminding me how much I miss it. Began with lunch – barbecued eel and a seaweed salad – at the Japanese Centre in Lower Regent Street. Intrigued by the sheer variety of people using the mini-supermarket, not only Japanese but all nationalities. But that’s what the city does, takes in people from everywhere with their skills and culture then turns them into Londoners. Nothing to offer, and you can expect to be rejected. Peter Ackroyd makes the same point in his brilliant London – The Biography: the city’s strength has always been its people. The only other that offers the same variety is New York, and even the Big Apple can be, well, a tad parochial. Think of how many different writers, and styles, have become the voice of London. NY offers two, really: Damon Runyon and Tom Wolfe. Perhaps James Baldwin and stretching a point, songwriters like the Gershwins or Sammy Cohen. But look at the sheer variety of London voices like Amis (a pet hate, but has to be acknowledged), Zadie Smith, Timothy Mo, JG Ballard, M John Harrison (whose wonderful Viriconium has to be based on London) and countless others, all with something fresh and exciting (okay, Amis for Money) to say about London town. And those are only a few.
I was staying with my nephew who lives above Camden Town. I love the way the near anarchic and often downright weird seamlessly morph into the elegant and controlled. One moment the bustle of Camden Market, the next the sheer – expensive – graciousness of Camden Square. No, that isn’t where the nephew lives. But it’s close. However, the back garden next to his well-tended one is as chaotic as anything you’ll find a few streets away. “The family just gave up,” his other neighbour said. “Got too old and don’t want help.” But I think a bit of chaos next door highlights how green your own fingers are. There again, I don’t have to live there.
The next day a bus down to Selfridges and what was going to be a brief trawl through the food halls. Somehow I ended up discussing Poulet Bresse with the head butcher, two foodies having a chat. The day was meant to be All About Art. Instead I decided to wander around, with a vague intention of seeing the new White Cube in Bermondsey.
So a walk down to the West End. First time I’d seen the new plaza outside the Connaught with a fountain that produces the faintest of rain clouds. In Barclay Square, as ever, enthralled by the sheer height of the Plane Trees. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford a Saville Row suit, because one is never enough, but I get enormous pleasure seeing them in the shop window and knowing the craft is alive and flourishing.
Cork Street very flash-commercial but at the top end a gallery showing prints by Howard Hodgkin, which I wasn’t expecting. Any more than the party of ladies-who-lunch, being lectured by an Authority, expected me to join them. It was either that or wait in the street. A few polite smiles and then, on seeing that I wasn’t wearing designer anything, they unconsciously gripped their handbags tighter. I must have looked like an artist.
Turkish coffee, medium sweet, and the Guardian small crossword in Brewer Street. Then to Victoria just because, and it’s private. Lucked into a free concert promoting the West End and saw three numbers from Chicago plus the lead from Billy Elliot doing the Electricity song and dance number who couldn’t have been more than fourteen. So far a day of talent and surprises. It got better.
Found my way to Bermondsey Street and the new White Cube Gallery. Used to live a mile or so further East and was fascinated to see how the area’s changed. Always was ripe for gentrification, some had begun twenty years ago, but for the most part the changes have kept alive the spirit and the feel of the place. New plazas or streets have kept the shape of the old. Nothing too tall, the intimacy still there. I loved it and the gallery – all together now and sing: Am-ayzing Space – but not the Hirsts, very second year at art school. However there was also video art and for once extremely arresting and even profound. Well, thoughtful at least.
Then the glass-blowing workshop, one of whose founders I knew from Rotherhithe before developers made the workshop leave the river-side. Shown around the exhibition by one of the glass-blowers who knew I wasn’t a buyer, but happy to talk about the craft. By now hungry and behold! just up the road a Vietnamese cafe, so I could sit outside in the sun with a chicken pho ga (spicy noodle soup) and a Vietnamese iced coffee.
From there it had to be the Shard (London’s latest, needle pointed, slim pyramid of a sky-scraper) which doesn’t celebrate what was, or is now, but what will come. If you ever get the chance, stand at the base and look up to follow the building’s lines towards infinity – and wonder how something so vast can be so graceful unlike, say, those Towers in Kuala Lumpur, a clumsy proof that mere size is never enough.
Along to Bankside and more building activity – don’t they know there’s a recession on? – and two girls, good classical musicians, busking under Blackfriar’s bridge. Across the foot bridge from Tate Modern to St Pauls, giving one of the most fascinating views of the Thames and London skyline you can find. And there’s another thing: just as the city’s people are so varied, so too are the buildings. There is no pattern, as in New York; and any a touch of Parisian grandeur is modified by a nearby street-urchin of a building ‘aving a laugh. By now my feet are aching – it will be a twelve mile walk – but in a what the hell mood I traipsed down Ludgate Hill, into Fleet Street (The Royal Courts of Justice have been given a good old wash and brush up), the Strand and finally back to China Town to buy some bamboo steamers for my nephew.
I must have looked tired because a Chinese or Thai woman in her early forties, perhaps, offered me a ‘mass-ah-gee’. Smiling politely I made my excuses and left. Nice to know I don’t look like a cop. Turned the corner and there by the dragon statues stood another girl busker, this time Chinese and playing a Chinese flute. I’m not an expert by any means, other than having lived in Singapore years ago, but to me she was pretty damn good. Gave money, stood watching until she finished and bowed to me. I bowed back. We smiled. I went to buy the steamers. That was also the London I love.
This much I know about the countryside: nothing very much happens here. Anything that does, tends to happen again. And again. There is, or can be, a sense of wildness and freedom but only in places like Dartmoor, Snowdonia, the Peak District or the Scottish Highlands. And they aren’t going anywhere. Miss them today and they’ll be waiting to morrow. As will badgers, foxes or deer and guess what? They’ve all moved to the city. If you’re open to it, every day London will remind you of the weird, the sublime and perhaps the horrible. That’s why it’s magical, its history briefly glimpsed in the flap of a pigeon’s dusty wing as it tries to escape the Peregrine falcons, whose pigeon-fancying life-style has made them Londoners whether they know it or not.