Ask me if I like London.
No, I don’t, would be a frequent answer.
Architecturally, I don’t think it’s beautiful. Not as ugly as some other places (no names mentioned) but not a city where you can walk down the streets and feast your eyes on one beautiful building after another. Because of the Great Fire of 1666, most of London is relatively modern. What we have predominantly, is a combination of Colonial chunkiness (Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Pall Mall), and cold steel and glass expressions of folie des grandeurs (the London Eye, the Gherkin and, now, the Shard). London buildings do not possess the splendour of Rome, the sensuality of Venice, the quiet precision of Brussels or Brugge, the charm of Cambridge, or the elated inspiration of New York skyscrapers.
Still, sometimes, when I am walking around the city, I find myself ambushed by a whisper, a song, a few errant words from a story, carried by a gust of wind; or a wink rippling in the Thames. A building is calling me. I stop and pay attention, and come face to face with a gem. St Paul’s Cathedral bathed in silver light, seen from Hungerford Bridge. The gold Houses of Parliament reflected in the nocturnal river. Big Ben at sunset. Hammersmith Bridge, in green and gold. The Tower of London, murmuring secrets. Lambeth Palace, austere and sapient. There are also the hidden jewels, the ones that do not feature on the official tourist trail. Fulham Palace, with its Elizabethan courtyard and gently gurgling fountain. All Saints’ Church has stood guard at the North end of Putney Bridge for six hundred years. The Royal Courts of Justice line Fleet Street, tall and imposing. Across the street, ensconced among barristers’ chambers, the Temple Church – built by Knights Templars – is another nugget of precious architecture, history and music.
When I returned to London both from Hamburg and Brussels, I wanted to turn back as soon as I stepped off the plane and the Eurostar. After the politeness and helpfulness in Hamburg and Brussels, London rudeness and aggressiveness was like an unprovoked slap across the face. London is becoming increasingly difficult to live in. It is becoming the playground of the rich and, unless you can keep up financially, you fall under and get trampled. Property prices are absurdly disproportionate to the average salary. Food prices are noticeably rising. Public transport prices are shocking. If you are well heeled, London is the Horn of Plenty for it can cater to your every whim (except offer consistently good weather – even millionaires can’t order that one). Unless you are on a high salary, living in London can be an uphill struggle to survive.
I spend much of my time plotting ways to escape from London; to move to a small, quiet town where the main street is deserted after 8 p.m., and where I can get around on foot. Where I can afford to live.
Then I get a day like the one I had a few weeks ago. I bought a pair of sandals from an Italian shoe shop. Then I bought bunches of fresh dill, mint and parsley from a Middle Eastern grocer. I had crusty Italian bread for lunch, and a Japanese take away for dinner. There is a café in Southwark, where I like drinking Turkish coffee. Sometimes, I get a loaf of wholemeal and rye bread from the German bakery, and poppy seed cake from the Polish shop. I also like buying Spanish hot chocolate tablets from the Spanish shop on the Portobello Road. I can take a walk to a couple of nearby newsagents, and buy a copy of The Guardian, of El Pais, a Corriere della Sera, a NewYorker or Le Monde. I cannot afford these often but they are there if and when I want them. On the bus, and the Tube, you hear people speaking French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Farsi, Thai, Polish, Arabic… The list could go on and on. You cannot get bored in London. London is a city where new experiences are served daily – whatever your budget.
As for moving to a small, quiet town where the main street is deserted after 8 p.m., where I can get around on foot, and where I can afford to live… Well, I think I will wait a while. I will be one of the many London church mice for just a little longer. I still enjoy breathing this dirty but wonderfully varied air.
Do I like London? I guess I do.