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ďSo what will you miss about living in London?Ē
It was a throwaway comment by a colleague at work but it got me thinking. What
I miss most?
I had to concede that what Iíll miss the most is being able to come down the stairs and have all of London at my doorstep. Having lived here for nearly ten years Iíve developed a tendency for taking it all for granted, yet I know that once this chapter of my life is over Iím going to wish Iíd made more of it while I was here.
Such is life.
One of the major relationships we have in life is the one we share with the place we live. In my case I have had several such relationships. Although I first came to London as a child and again in my early 20s it wasnít until I moved here in the early 90s that my relationship with this great city emerged in a one room bedsit in South Harrow with my then partner Daragh. Then it developed further while living in Hendon. From there I decamped to Notting Hill Gate and finally Brixton, by which time London had become home.
My relationship with London was interrupted when I left here in 1995. It resumed again when I returned in 2001. Ever since, it has continued to develop and grow until the city has become so much a part of me, I find myself fretting sometimes at the thought of leaving, for while Iíll be returning to resume one of the other great relationships in my life, my relationship with the city of Melbourne, it will take time to make the adjustment. So, to return to the original question: what am I going to miss about living in this great city?
Anonymity. One of the wonderful things about London is you can be totally anonymous. Sure, itís arguably the most heavily surveillanced city in the world. On any given day one is photographed over 300 times. But the beauty of that is
is photographed. Itís totally democratic. No one misses out. And after all, whoís going to notice you if youíre not important? Itís a city where you can be whoever you want to be and nobody gives a toss. I donít think Iíve ever run into a student of mine the whole time Iíve been here. What a blessing!
Culture. Unlike so many other cities in the world London has some of the greatest cultural treasures accessible for free. If I want to look at Egyptian mummies or stand and be dazzled by van Gogh I simply have to pop across the park and itís all there. If I want to go and see an opera for ten quid I can. On any given night there are 50 plus musicals playing, or the cream of the entertainment world. Alternatively I can peruse the literary treasures of British Library or visit Karl Marxís grave at Highgate Cemetery. Itís all here.
Rain. That may sound daft to some people but coming from Australia I have always retained a healthy respect for the wet stuff. I remember all too well what itís like to go for weeks or even months without a decent downpour and while the idea of eternal sunshine holds a magical appeal for the English I know all too well what itís like to hunger for the rain. True, the dark winter days here get me down and I wonít miss the lack of winter sunlight but I rarely begrudge the rain unless Iím inadvertently caught in a downpour.
Battersea Park Gardens. London has a wealth of beautiful parklands. I once read somewhere than 39% of the area of greater London is parkland. I find that a little hard to believe but nonetheless what parkland it does have are magnificent and for me none more so than Battersea. True, Hyde Park is bigger and not be to dismissed but Battersea is my haven when I need to indulge in a little down time. I love its variety, its riverside views, its boating lake, its hidden garden, its big, big sky and most significantly itís proximity to where we live.
Battersea Power Station. Unarguably my favourite building in London this iconic structure rises on the banks of the River Thames like a giant sentry to its industrial past. I first became aware of it when it featured on the cover of Pink Floydís Animals album way back in the 70s and I remember being thrilled when I first discovered it in the flesh when I loved here in the early 90s. If I had the money Iíd fully restore it to its redbrick former glory, its four chimney stack white and gleaming and turn it into the industrial revolution museum.
Tottenham Court Road. Haggling over prices is not a British tradition but to do anything less along this Mecca of electrical goods is to throw good money away. Lined as it is with dozens of competing businesses I have managed to bargain down the price of cameras, mp3 players, laptops and a variety of other boysí toys to within an inch of cost price saving literally hundreds of pounds in the process. I have also revelled in the perverse pleasure of going back to stores that said Iíd never get it cheaper elsewhere and proving to them they were wrong.
Caffe Nero. When it first opened downstairs from our little flat I was delighted. When three gleaming chimney stacks appeared outside our kitchen window and began roaring 24/7 I was appalled. To their credit, after we complained to council they moved the chimneys onto the roof and ever since I have treated the cafť as a second lounge. It is where I go to sit and think and to write. It is staffed by friendly Italians and attracts an extraordinarily diverse clientele. It serves excellent coffee and you can sit for as long as you like without being disturbed. Bliss!
Pimlico. It never fails to amaze me that we live in the very heart of the city of London and yet where we live has a decidedly village feel to it while Pimlico itself is comprised of beautiful, five story white stucco buildings with angled streets that break the normal grid structure that so much of London adheres to and which has a decidedly Parisian feel to it. Had anyone told me ten years ago that we would end up not merely living here but actually owning a slice of it I would have been hard pressed to believe them.
Parliament Square. Itís the seat of British government, the place from where an empire once ruled a third of the globe. Emerging from the Underground of an evening I pass through it on my way home. I never fail to be impressed by the sheer beauty of its glorious architecture Ė Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, St. Margaretís Church and the newly refurbished Supreme Court. It is as British as itís possible to get; even the anti-war protesters permanently camped outside the gates of Parliament are a symbol of British tolerance.
And itís all just down the road.
The River. Having always lived within close proximity to the sea the river has been an important source of solace for me. There is something quietly restorative about being beside water. Being a tidal river, the Thames provides a constantly changing spectacle and in its own unique way links me back to the sea. Itís where I go when I have needed to take time out to think and reflect in the hustle and bustle of the city. With its varied scenery, its river boats and barges and its ever changing flotsam and jetsam it has become a constant companion.
The Underground. For all its many annoyances and shortcomings, the London Underground is a fabulous testament to the ingenuity of the Victorians who first built it. Whilst we may grumble about overcrowded trains, faulty signals and the odd cancellation due to engineering works it remains a brilliant way to get around a very large metropolis. Iíve read some of the best books, listened to some of the best music and had some of my best naps on the Underground. Itís like the circulation system of the city, leading people back and forth from its beating heart to its far-flung outskirts.
The National Gallery. I still find it extraordinary that one of the greatest collections of art in the world is completely free to the general public. What that means is it is possible to pop in on the way home and spend time with just one or two artworks rather than feel the need to rush around paying visual lip service to the whole collection simply because youíre trying to get value for money. I will miss the pleasure of dropping by on a whim to commune with Van Gogh, Monet or Caravaggio for no other reason than I can.
Victoria Train Station. I pass through it every day and barely give it a thought but it has become so much an integral part of my daily routine that I know I will miss it when Iím no longer here. Although not as richly restored as some other London stations it is nonetheless one of the great dames of British rail heritage and its scruffiness is in some respects part of its charm. Now undergoing a multi-million pound extension and refurbishment it will forever retain an iconic place in the memory of my day to day life here in London.
Mr. Toppers. Itís a chain of hairdressers across the capital that offers cheap haircuts by an ever-changing parade of predominantly friendly Australian and New Zealand travellers working to pay for their European adventure. Itís where I discovered that the cut that suits me best is a number seven on top and a number two blending into a number one on the back and sides. Itís a no fuss cut that takes little more than ten minutes to execute and cost no more than £7 which, given my somewhat depleted hair stock, is about as much as Iím prepared to pay.
Spicy Food Plus. Itís the Indian takeaway across the road from our little flat which has become a mainstay of our weeknight diet. Itís been run by Mr. Khan and his family and friends for as long as anyone can remember. Itís best not to look behind the counter too closely. One could easily be put off by the amount of grime and dust hiding just beneath the till or beside the basin with the dripping tap, which would be a shame because the food itself is delicious and once on the plate all other concerns are cast hungrily aside.
The terrace outside our kitchen window. Technically shared between ourselves and three other flats, we can only access it by climbing over the sink and through the kitchen window. A few years ago one of the other owners tried to spook us into relinquishing access rights by threatening to Ďsend the boysí round. We notified the police and the press who featured our case on the front page of the Evening Standard Property Guide, after which we never had a scrap of bother. Having filled it with plants itís become our little garden oasis in the heart of the city.
Christmas. For all its commercialism and hype I love Christmas Day in London. I love the fact that there are no trains or buses and no shops open. What is usually a busy part of town assumes a tranquillity unmatched at any other time of the year. And while we receive numerous invitations from friends to share the day with them we have tended to decline such kind offers, preferring to be by ourselves and enjoy the simple pleasures of a good meal and a restful day. Indeed, some of my most memorable Christmases have been spent here in London.
Multiculturalism. London is in many respects a separate country within the UK itself. It has a diversity of peoples, faiths and lifestyles that is both fascinating and challenging. With so many different points of view about absolutely everything it is a melting pot of the world with over seven million people gathered together within an area little more than fifty square kilometres. Growing up in Australia it was easy to have a fixed and sometimes naive view of the world. London constantly challenges such narrow viewpoints and being here has forced me to confront more than a few ideological demons.
Spring. Winter can be a challenging time in London, not least because of the long, dark nights and the chilly cold days. February can be especially testing. But once spring finally sets in itís like a dark, heavy fog lifts. A riot of colour bursts forth from the ground; trees develop the silky green of new growth, the sky assumes an intoxicating blueness while people begin to smile at each other for the first time in months. The promise of sunshine and warmth generates its own special energy and optimism, and for a while anything and everything seems possible again.
The Serpentine. This beautiful lake on the edge of Hyde Park is a soothing tonic to the hustle and bustle of the city. Whenever I go for a stroll beside and around it I can feel the tension in my body draining away as the sparkle on sunlight washes over me. Itís a place where families gather to feed to swans; where children squeal and where daredevil rollerbladers show off their skills. Itís a place where people paddle in boats or sip coffee in the Lido Cafť after feeding the squirrels in the park. It is, in short, quintessentially London.
Roasted chestnut vendors. As the dark nights settle over the capital and people ward off the winter blues with the interim distraction of the festive season, the smell of roasted chestnuts is something that links the capital with its Dickensian past. Whether or not they actually roasted chestnuts in London in the nineteenth century is neither here nor there. What it serves to do is create a romantic ambiance that conjures up every Christmas memory, real or otherwise, that one has ever indulged in. Ironically Iíve never bought a packet but the smell is one I will cherish for ever.
Proximity to the Isle of Wight. I was born on the island and it has defined who I am in many, many ways. Since living in London I have been down there numerous times and whenever I have I have been able to reconnect with something deep within me that words cannot begin to describe. Suffice to say that when I am there I am able to appreciate who I am as a direct continuation of the boy I once was and I am able to see the world as the safe, friendly place I once assumed it to be.
Our flat in Wilton Road. Had anyone told me we would own a slice of London within spitting distance of the palace, the river and the Houses of Parliament I would never have believed them. Yet that is what we have done and it will not be without considerable regret that we finally relinquish our ownership to someone else. While itís little more than a shoe box itís our shoebox, one we have transformed from a filthy, run down wreck into a smart and stylish inner city pad. I have loved living here and I will miss living here. Terribly.
My forties. I was 41 when we moved here and I will be 51 when we move back to Melbourne later this year. They used to say that life begins at forty and for me this has been my finest decade yet. I have challenged myself in ways I could never have hoped to do back in Australia, confronting a plethora of uncertainties and insecurities and emerging the stronger for having done so, to the extent that I sometimes worry that by comparison my fifties may end up being something of an anticlimax.
Actually, no they wonít. Theyíll be better.
I love London. It sounds so corny but itís true. I love its streets, its history, its people, its architecture, its culture, its parks and gardens, its river, its transport system, the lot! Itís a city I could quite happily spend the rest of my days in. But thatís not going to happen. There is another city I love and know well. Itís called Melbourne. By the time my years on the planet have drawn to a close it will in all likelihood be the city I will have lived in and loved the most.
But Iíll never forget London.
The Tip Jar