‘London? Hate it,’ said my Uncle Bernard once, with the magnificent contempt of a true-born son of Coventry. ‘Dirty. Grubby. Horrible place.’
Of my five uncles, Bernard’s the one that wears bow-ties and does a faultless Donald Duck impression. He’s not a man to be doubted.
Lots of people at home would agree with him. Nowhere worse than cocky, cockney London. (Except, of course, Leicester.)
It was only after I moved there, years later, that I discovered the weirdest thing.
The place Uncle Bernard hates doesn’t actually exist. London is a composite image, one of those pictures made up of lots of tiny photos. The closer you get to it, the more it disintegrates into a million pixels. It’s a mirage, our capital, a slew of smashed-together villages and towns, a patchwork of many places adding up to something both more, and less, than one city. Uncle Bernard couldn’t have spent much time in leafy Hampstead or pristine Barnes or well-heeled Dulwich and come away with his slur intact. (He could in Morden. Morden reminds me a lot of Leicester.)
Staying with friends after university, the glimpses I snatched of this ancient mirage seemed impossibly forlorn. Looking back, this is probably a sign I spent far too much time in Inferno’s on Clapham High Street. ‘London’ was grand, and shabby, and utterly indifferent. I did not belong. Only by living here did I realise: not belonging is the way that this place makes you feel at home.
Lately, I have seamed the city with my steps, stitching east to west, morning and night. Along the way, I’ve discovered pockets of newness, postcodes passed through for the first time. As they always do, these patches of London splice many times and ideas together, council flats stacked against regency stucco, strident shop signs under tired Edwardian terraces. One bus journey holds scruffy libraries, turreted schools, and blond-wood, bare-brick sourdough pizza joints. An architectural procession of preening and neglect. Endless half-familiar streets, all laced with trees, the veins and capillaries of the city.
London is a patchwork sewn together by the minds that thrum here. There are as many Londons as there are pairs of eyes, opening to see her. My London is haunted by the ghosts of other cities: Singapore, Glasgow; Paris, Berlin; Birmingham, Bath, Lagos. Snatches of my own past, handed back to me, by this huge old sponge of a place, which turns to stone under the weight of our steps. A fractured coral reef, grown from lives lived over the top of those that have gone before.
I don’t know how much longer I can cling on to my London, this kleptomaniac old dame. She kisses you with lights by the river, the sea on her breath, picking your pockets with both hands. I don’t have the golden pickaxe to hack out a little piece of her, so I’ll carry on borrowing my time here, along with everyone else who sticks to her skin.
That skin. It’s beyond airbrushing. You can’t shut out the pores on her nose, nor the cracks in her teeth. She doesn’t care what you see. There is the glory of upflung stone, the soaring bright glass. And underfoot, the pavements pocked with gum, the things people let fall. The things they don’t want.
Where you are is always a part of who you are. Right now, I’m a mudlark, combing the river, scavenging meaning from whatever the day washes up. Noticing the things no-one else has time to see. Holding tight to moments that others step over, fragments of the city falling off the backs that hurry away. I’m putting them in my pockets for later. When I can tap people on the shoulder and say: Sorry, excuse me? Sorry. You dropped this. Yes, I saw it. Here you go. Yes. It’s yours.