I RARELY LEAVE London, and with good reason: after many years of practicing, I’ve managed to bring my mental landscape and the one outside of my head into some kind of fragile harmony. Here, you need to keep a mixture of vigilance and aggression on a gentle but constant boil, less to ward off potential dangers, more so that you can seize on any opportunity to gain a one percent advantage over your fellow city-dwellers. Go anywhere else and the brew stops simmering, and then what?
Well, a couple of things. Recently, I’ve been away from home more than usual and more than I’d judge entirely safe for continued mental well-being. On the deck of a ship in the South China Sea, though, I wondered why I’d ever choose to go back if I didn’t have to. It wasn’t the obvious (ready access to the sun, the sea, exotic drinks), it was that I’d developed a strong attachment to my cabin, which had very quickly come to seem like a kind of cave of perfection. Being the kind of person who, on arriving anywhere, for even the briefest of stays, unpacks everything they’ve brought and arranges it with mad ergodynamic precision, really helped. There being no telephone and wifi that you had to pay for by the minute really, really helped. And the fact that there was so much maritime functionality – a retractable washing line in the shower! – sealed the deal. Essentially, I set up my space to prefigure the way I hope to live when elderly: pared down, everything to hand, never far to walk. Then I tailored my daily routine so that I could move with ease from my swim to my nap to my 8pm glass of Prosecco, with as few deviations as possible. I neither generated nor sought excitement. Quite the reverse; if it had presented itself, I would probably have spurned it.
This is what happens when I remove myself from the arena of perpetual stimulation and mild peril.
Or this: I came back and then, quite quickly, had to go for a short trip to another city in England. The thing happened to me that only ever happens in urban settings that are in my own country but which are not London; it never happens, for example, in the countryside, or in suburbia, and usually not if there’s sea anywhere nearby. Nearly always, it is dusk, and often I’m on my way somewhere, because I’ve come wherever I’ve come in order to visit someone, or to perform a work-related task. By this time, I’ve usually thought how nice it is wherever I’ve gone. It’s smaller, so you can get around it more easily. Often it’s cleaner, less cluttered, less densely populated, prettier, airier. You look into an estate agent’s window and you realize you could afford to live here more easily than you can in London. You could drive or cycle to the countryside quickly, and walk in it. Doubtless, being old here (you see, it’s an abiding theme) would be less of a challenge.
And then something in the light changes, and you see the shops beginning to shut, and the pubs beginning to fill up, which might be charming, except that most of them, probably, are chain-pubs, with identikit bar-stools and agricultural paraphernalia on the walls and two-for-one dinner deals. And the rows of houses, often houses that are a hundred or two hundred years old, maybe little workingmen’s cottages or the like, interspersed with newer developments, broken up by parades of shops that might offer a Chinese take-away and a pharmacy and a hairdresser’s – or even, as I recently saw, a specialist outlet catering for the needs of would-be Jedi Knights – suddenly look bereft. Of course, they aren’t; they just seem that way to me, because all of a sudden, the picture has tilted, and it seems as though something sad and painful and lonely has infiltrated the scene. Slightly panic-struck, I think: Oh God. I must get back to London soon.
Now: I don’t want to put this under too powerful a microscope. Being assailed by thoughts of the intense futility of human endeavour just because the combination of an unfamiliar place and a particular time of day prompt some strange emotional ache, presumably with its origins in early childhood, is not pleasant, but it’s not something you want to think too hard about. But there it is: sometimes, leaving London makes me think of death.
Returning to it doesn’t exactly make me think of life, but it does make me feel as though I’ve got into a big, warm bath – a muddy, scummy communal one like footballers used to get in to post-match before they all had too much money to do something so undignified. Imagine how turbid that water is now, and how violently it is roiling. It is, as we might say here, All Going On: a mayoral election in May, quickly followed by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, giving way to the Olympics, now less than a hundred days away.
Londoners – and British people in general – don’t really do feverish anticipation, except at Christmas-time, when it morphs into a kind of angsty, stressy over-excitement more usually associated with children who’ve stayed up too late. We prefer to remain phlegmatic, mixing complacency with scepticism. The self-satisfaction comes from our belief that we do pomp and ceremony like no one else in the world, although this is manifestly untrue. The nay-saying – a poll flitted across my television screen the other day, letting me know that a slender majority of the population had very little interest in the Olympics – is a trifle more complicated. It combines natural gloom and doom (how will anyone get anywhere on our rickety transport system?) with a bit of kicking back at the powers-that-be (a months-long “debate” has raged about the inefficiency and unfairness of the ticketing system) with the national attitude towards having visitors, which requires that the host makes themselves ill with preparation (redecorating the house, learning to make iced buns, shedding weight, learning a foreign language) before coming to bitterly rue having ever extended an invitation in the first place.
I suspect two things: the first is that all this hyperbole, all this injunction to enjoyment and national pride and pulling together and putting on the Ritz, sits slightly oddly with a city that, fewer than twelve months ago, briefly descended into furious disorder. And I also suspect that it is temporary, a way of warding off the possibility of disappointment. As the spring progresses, dourness will give way to delirious showing off and unrestrained nostalgia. I’ll kick off: in 1977, in a medium-sized town in Essex, not that far to the east of London, I spent a morning winding coloured tissue paper around a wooden ruler. Roughly forty or fifty little girls did precisely the same thing. Then we made slits (“Careful with the scissors, girls!”) in the tissue paper, so that when you waved the ruler vigorously, it looked like – what? Well, something vaguely celebratory. Then we were all put into our hats and coats and marched, single-file, from the school gates to the center of the town, where we waited for a while, and then a while more. Eventually, a large, purring black car came down the street, and we waved our rulers frantically, and the Queen waved her hand regally. And then, I suppose, we came back for lunch, which is likely to have been a greyish kind of minced meat, with a scoop of mashed potato and a spoonful of bullet-like peas. The food, at least, slightly better these days. The decorations, also. But you lose something when you stop making ruler-tissue-wands and I wonder how much the summer of enforced national jollity will be able to revive it.