Thursday, 29 October 2009

I heart London

I have lived in London for the past 15 years, the longest I have ever lived anywhere and in that time I have lived, studied, worked and partied in most areas of the city, so when I take a walk amidst its grimy backstreets and grand boulevards it conjures a multitude of memories. Today, thanks to a confluence of circumstances including daddy taking a day off over half term to take the big boys to see the Lion King, my indomitable mother's help B taking charge of the babies and me being booked in for an appointment with my dentist whose surgery is just behind John Lewis on Oxford street I found myself trekking from theatreland in Covent Garden to the bustle Oxford Circus.

This was a real trip down memory lane as I used to work in the heart of Soho - not plying the traditional trade associated with that area, but writing interminably dull reviews of even more boring computer products - as you can imagine the the best bit of the job was the location. I could while away my lunch hour exploring the back streets around the office for everything from exotic sex toys (not that I ever did) to sifting through the sparkly gewgaws in the dusty little bead shop perched on the corner of a forgotten street just behind the altogether more regal Regent Street.

Inhaling the exhaust fumes, stalking the cracked pavements, watching the taxis, buses and white van drivers wrestle for precedence on the clogged streets, dodging pedestrians dressed to kill for a day behind a desk transported me instantly to my days as a young, free and single girl about town. I strolled past the famous Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton street, the toasted tang of roasting coffee twirling itself into my nostrils and the distinctive rich dark scent of the beans reminded me of the day I stood in that very shop just hours before a deadly bomb ripped apart the gay bar next door.

That was a surreal night with all the streets of Soho cordoned off by banners of rippling yellow police tape. My friends and I sat in the pub, shocked that such violence had been wrought so close to home, and yet somehow enlivened by the drama of it all as panicked calls and texts poured into our mobiles from worried relatives and friends. In London you always feel at the heart of the action, and that's an addictive sensation.

The Christmas lights are strung up above Regent Street, webs of light bulbs forlorn and shorn of any finery by the daylight and without a purpose until some Z-list celebrity is plucked from obscurity to switch them on so they can glint and twinkle bringing festive magic to glint and glimmer as they're reflected by the tempting store windows so desperate to part us from our cash in exchange for that perfect present. The shops here are just so much more majestic than the average high street, there is no tacky Tesco or ill stocked Boots with shambolic shelves of shampoo and shaving foam to break the run of gleaming plate glass-fronted emporia, no matter that most of them are hawking made up tartans and gaudy crystal to the passing tourist trade, there is still a feeling of majesty to the shops on this elegant avenue.

Cliched as it may sound even the air seems to pulse with an energy that is lacking in the sleepy suburb that motherhood has washed me up in. Everyone is a hurry, being swallowed into the maw of the tube, as stale warm air belches up from crammed subterranean stations, sharp-edged carrier bags swing from chic wrists, slicing their way through the crowds, their expensive contents demanding the path be cleared for them, gaggles of tourist giggle and jostle earning irritated tuts and sharp elbows aside from locals with a more pressing destination than the next branch of Starbucks or a tat merchant selling I Heart London Ts.

I used to be part of all of this, I used to push my way through these crowds, I used to shop in these shops, drink in these bars, eat in these cafes. I was one of the throng of Londoners who move at a pace that makes a pushchair a liability and a small child a ball and chain dragging at your hand.

Do I miss it? Of course, sometimes, on a day like today when I feel my pulse quicken with excitement as I walk through the centre of my home town past Nelson's Column, The Royal Opera House, the magicians and opera singers of Covent Garden's street theatre, the vice dens of Soho. The dusty little hardware shops that still cling on amidst the sleek chain stores, the bars where a messy crowd of actors, singers and wasters spill out onto pavement tables savouring an expresso and a cigarette as they watch the world go by, the elegant squares with their pristine wedding cake white Georgian facades, which no longer hide the salons of the demi monde, but dull firms of lawyers, accountants and financial advisors.

I love my city and perhaps that's why, unlike so many of my mummy contemporaries I cling on to London life rather than packing up and putting myself out to pasture in the provinces. Of course I know all the arguments about schools, quality of life, smaller mortgages and bigger gardens, and I am not so smug as to not say never say never. But could I live without my fix of metropolitan life? What could I find to dazzle me in the same way as the shimmer of the white lights strung along its banks glittering on the glassy ripple of of an ink black Thames?

My London has shrunk beyond belief since I had children. Anyone who has ever tried to navigate the capital with a buggy, let alone a double one, will know that after one or two sweaty journeys which saw you hefting child, pushchair and assorted paraphernalia required for a day out of the house up flight after flight of precipitous stairs amidst the tuts of a hoard of commuters, knows you soon give up and stay local. I have tried to hush a screaming baby as I wheeled him around an exhibition at the Tate, I have almost been thrown out of the Tate Modern when my boys refused to accept that those primary coloured installations where not an imaginatively conceived play area but priceless art. I have almost lost one son amidst the pressing Christmas crowds at Fortnum & Mason and I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to explain why licking anything on a Tube train is a BAD idea.

In short I find it safer and less stressful to stay within a three mile radius of my home when I am with children, where there is ample parking, plentiful baby change areas and no one is annoyed when half of a meal ends up spread beneath the chair of a tiny diner. But despite this it still makes me feel that little bit better about my tiny little life, knowing that there is one so much bigger just a few stops down the tube line.


  1. How true! I know only too well what will happen if I dare gather enough confidence to start hoofing it round town with the little one in the buggy, so stick to my local area at all times if possible!

    I like your sentence about always being at the heart of the action in London. I work near King's Cross and on July 7th 2005 it all felt a bit too close to home. That evening, like everyone else I know, I went to the (heaving) pub and there was a real sense of community.

  2. gewgaw = good word!

  3. I was confined to suburbia by the time of the Kings Cross bombings, but I imagine it was like the Soho bomb, only more so. The atmosphere is so charged and frenetic with all those 'What if..' and 'I was just there' conversations. It's terrifying, but also electrifying in a slightly ghoulish way.

    Anon - I love that word and just had to find a way to slip it into the old blog!

  4. Actually you were on holiday at the time of the London bombings, just as you were on September 11, and pretty much any other major world event.

    And I thought you'd made "geegaw" up.


    Your hubby x

  5. Pedantic as ever! I was also confined to suburbia, so even if I had been here I wouldn't have been in central London, so I am in no way misleading anyone.

    And no, I didn't make the word up. I'm not Shakespeare you know. Just a little ol' mummy blogger.

  6. I feel exactly like that walking around Soho - and it feels like another country compared to the suburban life I'm leading here (although I'm secretly rather loving it).

    By the way, I think you were with me and The Doctor in Soho the night of the Admiral Duncan bombing - I seem to remember walking back along Oxford St and there was a really weird atmosphere, and we almost got caught up in a fight between some guy and his girlfriend?

    And I definitely recognise the Tate Modern memory..!

  7. OMG! You captured London beautifully. I miss it so.

    I still get a buzz when I take the kids up there.

    No place like London. Home.


  8. You sum it up so well. The buzz of just being part of a place.