‘The Waste Land’ is one of my favourite poems. Even before I started to unpick the meaning, I fell in love with the sound of the words, with its rhythm. On Monday night, I went to a talk entitled ‘Unreal City? London in writing’. The “Unreal City” was a hat tip to Eliot. It is strange that I rarely consider ‘The Waste Land’ as London literature, even though I have, myself, tracked London through it. Maybe it’s because the allusions exceed the geography. Or maybe it’s because even though the street names are familiar, it is not my London which is evoked.
Apparently “unreal” started off as “terrible”. “Terrible” captures one version of the city, I guess. “Unreal”, many; some of which exist, and others of which live within the mind.
This was the over-riding message from last night’s speakers, each of whom shared their own take on London and the stories that represented the city for them. From Stella Duffy’s passion for South London and the Thames which southerners must inevitably cross, to Aidan Andrew Dun’s bizarrely described psychic geography, surprisingly located around King’s Cross. Stewart Home’s amazingly indepth and personal recollection of East London criminals to Steven Berkoff’s account of the energy and resilience of Whitechapel, and his story of how tailors became playwrights and how words could be cut up and sewn together like clothes –
Everyone has a different London. And often these different Londons – and the stories wrapped up in them – overlap.
And so, it has got me thinking about my London and noticing how I have found it difficult to live in the City without writing about it. How it is impossible to be apathetic towards London. How London can, in some stories, be “terrible” – but stand in another position or give it a couple of years, and everything can change.
I have written before about my experiences of London. About how I felt swallowed up by the city and how the chaos allows you to disappear. About a type of loneliness that must be particular to crowded places. About the dark corners and about a sense of overwhelming fear.
This is not the London that I live in today, although I’m not sure I could write that version yet.
Today’s London is still gritty and contradictory and overwhelming – but I am less threated by this, now that I don’t shy away from it; and even though I haven’t got a sense of a coherent city, there are pieces that I am starting to treasure. That are attached to new stories which have, in turn, rebuilt the City in my mind.
So, these are some of the bits of my new London….
The view from the 211 on a rainy evening when Westminster Abbey and Big Ben illuminate the night sky and the history they radiate make me undeservedly proud. The old fashioned lampposts on Putney Bridge and how, when you’re standing under them before the morning traffic picks up, you could be 100 years back in time.
Roast lunches at mahogany tables in the pubs behind Angel. The sound of an electric guitarist at the bottom of the Leicester Square tube escalator and how it is hard not to smile when you walk past. The yellow and blue and pink housed mews behind the Kings Road that are so charming I don’t even mind the fact I will never be able to afford them.
The stations that I pass through daily and how I kind of enjoy, now, being part of the flowing crowd. The fruit man who calls everyone babe and the Big Issue seller opposite Liverpool Street station who wishes everyone Good Morning and cyclist dodging at the turning to Spitalfields where, for some reason, they have placed a goat –
Hidden gems that burrow into London like the Cellar Door and the Old Vic Tunnels and Gordon’s Wine Bar. Places that are passed amongst friends, those delightful in their peculiarity, backstreet bars, gardens that you stumble into –
Unmissable views –
I haven’t written my London properly yet but it feels like the outline is emerging. Like people and places and bits that I’ve read about and bits that I’ve written about and sounds and smells are all mixing together and it would be impossible, I think, for anyone else’s version of the City to be the same.