My London



    Meredith Oakes is the eleventh writer in the My London series. She is a
    playwright, librettist and translator who has lived in London for forty years.

    My London is cloudy, sunny, breezy and changeable today: election weather.
    The polling station is in the primary school at the end of the road, and every
    few minutes another voter – you can tell because they’re old – walks slowly
    past our window, making the most of the excursion, critiquing people’s
    front-garden shrubs and tulips.

    The schoolchildren have been given the day off so we shall miss the usual
    twice-daily procession of little things on scooters, or clutching imperilled
    models of castles and rockets, being shepherded by their adults into all those
    big parked cars (‘mothers’ cars’, my son used to call them with twelve-
    year-old disdain). I’ve now understood it: the cars have got bigger and big-
    ger because the child seats have. The current ones seem built to withstand
    the re-entry of your little space-child into the earth’s atmosphere, or to fend
    off an attack by heavy artillery. I’m the grandmother of a one-year-old and
    my opposite number fellow-grandmother has just bought a new car so she
    can fit the new car seat into it. Maybe we’ll cut a hole in ours.

    We’ve already made our own voting stroll to the school. It’s an old brick
    one with high Asphalt Jungle wire netting that keeps footballs in the play-
    ground. The footballs still sometimes make it over on to the pavement and
    you have to be a strong thrower to return them. The children are amused
    and embarrassed by your efforts but they do say thank you nicely if you
    succeed. In other words, it’s a good school. No footballs today, an empty
    playground, not a soul around. Inside the hall are three people taking our
    details, three cubicles and three pencils. Another slow-moving couple ar-
    rives as we leave. That is election fever in Streatham. I have voted for
    Chuka Umunna because I know him a little and believe in him and want
    to make sure he comes through. It’s embarrassing, though, because I’ve
    spent most of the Blair years and all the Cameron ones putting Libdem
    leaflets through people’s doors. It started because of despair with Labour,
    and continued because I harbour two irrational convictions: one, that com-
    mon sense wins in the end; two, that Libdems have it. I shall probably go
    on leafletting as this is not a rational world.

    The leafletting game tells you a lot about where you live, though. Where I
    live, many houses, big and small, are subdivided into flats, sometimes more
    flats than seems possible. There is an almost total lack of maintenance.
    Buddleias, feral gardens, cracked paving, mysterious plumbing, blistered
    window frames, strange extra entrances with hand-scrawled notices (‘NO
    JUNCK MAIL’): this is what the leafletter sees. There’s one doorway at the
    side of a large house, a few derelict concrete stairs down from ground level,
    where a compost of unpaid bills and ‘junck mail’ is all that remains of a
    small business that must have died there years ago. The last time I looked
    down those stairs – I always do look because I like urban decay: the soft
    creeping-back of nature, the subversive moulds and mosses, the paintwork
    that changes colour and peels like a living thing – I saw the white skeleton
    of some quite large animal lying there. Meanwhile life goes on oblivious
    in the flats in the main part of the house. Similarly, twenty years ago, a
    long-dead child was found in an overgrown garden not far from here. It
    turned out he was a boy whose quarrelling parents had once lived in one of
    the flats the garden belonged to. The parents had gone their separate ways,
    one of them taking the boy with them. He eventually ran away, back to
    the place he had formerly known, only to die in the winter’s cold as he hid
    among the bushes and brambles. Dickensian London still exists and you
    don’t have to look far for it, which perhaps is why Londoners tend to keep
    their eyes fixed straight ahead.

    My street has a lot of glorious sky and leaves. One end is biggish Victorian
    houses, the other is large-site urban buildings like the school, council flats,
    sheltered housing. Beyond is Streatham High Road in all its mess, a snort-
    ing roaring litter-strewn traffic-spill dipping to the south. On a stretch of
    freshly-asphalted pavement I once saw a cheap paper coffee cup embedded
    sideways as if the whole of Streatham High Road were being poured from
    it. I liked that image. Sometimes there’s a flower-seller walking the central
    traffic-island misted in petrol fumes, offering weary long-stemmed roses
    to drivers trapped in the rush-hour. He’s young and wan and doesn’t look
    English. I’m Australian. I remember how I felt, arriving in this vast case-
    hardened city without everything that had previously enveloped me and
    made me feel comfortable. I remember the feeling of smallness and expo-
    sure, as if my skin had been stripped off. I had get-out-of-gaol free cards in
    the form of friends and letters of introduction, once I felt stabilised enough
    to contact anyone. I didn’t have to experience the psychological nakedness
    as a physical reality, as the flower-seller does, on a narrow strip of concrete,
    seen and ignored by all. Great cities can’t complain if people keep wanting
    to come to them. Great cities are boastful and speak of themselves as great
    destinations. It has always been like that.

    My London isn’t one London. Everyone is more than one person and each
    one of me has a different London: there’s only room for one or two of them
    here. My first London was Stranger’s London in 1970, rainy, autumnal,
    post-hippy, pre-punk. In Sydney in the sun, it had made perfect sense to
    see girls barefoot in long cotton dresses, with bracelets and ankle rings and
    flowers. When I saw the same thing in the chill of the North End Road,
    mud-smeared feet, broken glass on the pavement, I thought, time for some-
    thing different. Stranger’s London was Hyde Park for space and trees and
    centrality and somewhere free to sit; Indian restaurants for a thing that
    was rare in those days, affordable good food; a handbag large enough to
    hold the A-Z; a B&B with nylon sheets that never got changed; and teach-
    ing myself shorthand on a park bench in Olympia. I was befriended by
    Roy, a West Indian who was maybe courting me, maybe not, but mainly
    we were both isolated and we liked to eat curry together. Also he took me
    to a West Indian club in a small basement where nearly everyone was a
    man, and there was carpet, no chairs, and everyone just leaned against the
    wall letting loud music and alcohol knock them out. Roy was employed in
    transport, he said. He was a bus conductor. Some Conservative woman said
    on television years ago that when canvassing she always knew who sup-
    ported her: the milk bottles they put out for collection were washed ones. I
    doubt that Roy voted Labour but he had more unwashed milk bottles than
    I’ve ever seen, massed on his kitchen floor like the Chinese emperor’s clay
    soldiers. He was totally chivalrous and magnanimous towards me, a good,
    good, depressed man. After a while, I got a job and found a home at the Ful-
    ham end of the North End Road. He came with me to my new front door.
    He wouldn’t come in. He said this was a different part of London and he
    didn’t think we’d meet any more. I’d have protested more than I did, except
    I thought it would look as if I wanted to sleep with him and, much as I liked
    him, I didn’t. I never saw him again. That was the difference between the
    two ends of the North End Road back then.

    Mine was a stock London pattern: you come to it from wherever you were
    before, go into culture shock and then, if you’re lucky enough, find a niche
    and cocoon yourself and pretend the rest of it isn’t out there.

    I worked for a magazine called Music and Musicians, part of an outfit
    called the Seven Arts Publications. Our seven magazines possessed one tin
    of paste between them (we used to physically cut and paste in those days)
    and part of my job was finding the tin of paste in whichever office it was
    being used and stealing it. We operated out of the basement of Artillery
    Mansions which was fairly crumbly back then, a kind of gently neglected
    three-storey coral reef in and out of which swam little old ladies in thick
    stockings, Buckingham Palace functionaries, and maybe workers from the
    Houses of Parliament down the road. At lunch time I often walked into
    Strutton Ground to buy fruit in the market, or we’d cross the road to the
    welcomingly dingy pub that served plates with a lot of gravy, or I’d sit
    in St James’s Park among men with briefcases and women with prawn
    sandwiches. The clock face of Big Ben is something I adore. The metal
    veining on its pale surface is like the veins in the wings of a dragonfly or a
    fairy, magical like a dandelion clock, magical too as a portal into history,
    the fairies and insects of Shakespeare and Elizabethan fashion, or of Rich-
    ard Dadd. The conjunction of this natural tendrilling, this delicate fantasy,
    with the heavy sound of Big Ben striking, and the weight and importance
    of its tower, is exciting to me the way conjunctions of very high and very
    low pitches in music are exciting… It’s the oneness of opposites, the deep
    boom of the sea with the filigree of foam, the immensity of an abyss with
    the smallness of swallows speeding about in it. It delights and somewhat
    reassures me that this expression of a broad natural span, this humanistic
    leavening of the ponderous with the vulnerable, the airy and the fantastic,
    stands as the symbol of government. The UK is maddeningly badly-run but
    it has endless ways of re-balancing and refreshing itself, laughing at itself,
    re-examining its conscience. It will no doubt survive this election as it has
    the rest.