Tired of London. Not necessarily tired of life, as the old maxim goes, but that’s a story for another time.
Tired of London, but not a Leaving of London, where someone pens a farewell to their city, I’m not going anywhere yet. This is just a tiredness of a particular concept of “London”, of “Going Up Town” or “Going Up West”, depending on where you come in from. A realisation that London, or “London”, has not done anything wrong, more that I am one in a long line of people who reach a certain age and decide London is not what it once was.
London is not what it once was, but perhaps it never really was. We all reach London too late. It was always so much better just before we arrive. There is always enough there to beguile you, entice you, ensnare you, but there is also a nagging sense that London was greater before, that you’ve just missed out on a Golden Age.
I’m sure there were people in the 1870s who thought this, or the 1930s. I’ve read and watched those who felt this in the 70s, 80s, 90s. London is ever-changing, ever out-of-reach and that is its appeal as well as its downfall. It is what makes a city great – the contradictory sense that it was better for someone before you, better for someone who follows you, but you never caught quite right for yourself. Bent out of time.
The luxury of the Elizabeth Line, Crossrail as we still call it and maybe always will, and I’m thinking how London would have opened up to me quite differently if this new train line had been there in my younger days. I think of what it would have meant to be dropped immediately where things were happening rather than at a tired, grey terminus. I think of what it would have meant to be able to get somewhere quickly and, just as importantly, to escape quickly too. A London I never quite had. Mine was a London of long, grotty train journeys in, and miserable, meandering Night Bus journeys out. This of course had its charms and its adventures, I know.
And now I do have this New Be-Crossrail-ed London it is, inevitably, too late. Soho is not what is once was, but I know that was ever thus. One of the eternal great joys of Soho is bemoaning its current state. Sanitised, gutted of its character. Not enough grime, sleaze, life. No more fears and thrills. Now there are just long queues for brunch. Most of the record shops have gone, those that remain are downsized, quiet. And there’s no records I can think to buy, where once my list was infinite. I think this is the natural order of things.
I stop by to use the Coach and Horses, after recently watching a documentary on its most famous patron, the writer (and drinker) Jeffrey Bernard. The place is quiet, but looks as much as it ever looked, as far as I can tell. It still feels like a haven, an escape, not just from London, but from the present day. Signs bearing DOUBLE DIAMOND, IND COOPE and SKOL LAGER call from behind the bar. The floor is well-worn, the scuffs from those who walked before me. The walls still panelled in wood, partitions punctuating the space as they always have. There’s an air of self-consciousness about the space though, old photos and cartoons adorn the walls, telling of what the place once was and so, by implication, telling us what it no longer is now. A kind of history about the place, but I’m not sure what Bernard or his drinking companions would have made of it.
I hear the roar of the Jubilee flypast. Either that or the start of World War 3. I ponder the strangeness of both.
There is still a London which is mine, one I endorse, embrace, love. It is the London of the outskirts, the suburbs, the forgotten towns, the places where people actually live, the places where we settle down. “London”, as in that concept of “Up Town” is still close, but not too close. London, as in the places that feel like non-places if you are just passing through, but places with heart and history and humanity if you dare stop a while.
London as a parade of shops. To be sat outside for a while and to see the present and hear the past. The petrol garage, the car showroom, someone’s first job there. The bakers, celebrating 25 years, where you’re asked if you’d prefer an end or a middle for your bread pudding. “Traditional Fish & Chips Opening Soon” where there was the old Chinese takeaway, there for 30 years apparently, the old fonts on its signage confirm that, where you remember getting a fortune cookie in there many years ago, and you wish you could remember what it said. The double-fronted bookmakers, ever quiet. The funeral directors less so. The Turkish barbers, always open. The kebab shop, host of many a post-pub debate many years back, when the Chinese had shut for the night, and you still needed your fortune told. The fishmonger, “don’t see many of them these days”. The little garden centre offering colour, life, hope. The passing of the seasons in what they display. Summer soon, if not now. It won’t be long until they have the Christmas trees out, how quickly the days go now. The postbox, adorned.
I know this is not just London. This could be anywhere, just as much as it is so distinctively itself. There is magic everywhere, if you look for it. I can never be tired of place, even if the places change, even as I change too.