My London by Maggie Butt


    I was born, brought up and have lived most of my life in London, and it fits me like a pair of comfortable slippers. I wasn’t born within the sound of Bow bells like my grandmother, or the Hoxton terraces where my dad grew up; I don’t live somewhere wealthy or literary, arty or gentrified, but in the un-cool yet happy compromise of suburbia.

    I am a north-Londoner, to my bones, and to me it’s always been a web of connected villages. I was born in Edmonton, which dates back to Saxon times, though you’d never guess to look at its depressing tower blocks. I live in utterly un-hip Southgate, once the south gate of the King’s hunting grounds – the Enfield Chase – now best described as close to the top end of the Piccadilly line. Southgate has a village green, a scattering of Georgian houses and a cricket pitch overlooked by the spire of a Victorian church which houses some fine Burne-Jones and William Morris stained glass windows. Leigh Hunt lived in the village, and may have been visited there by Keats. That’s the picture-postcard bit, where I went to primary school and, much later, so did my children – a very rare continuity for London. The arrival of the Piccadilly line in the 1930s transformed Southgate village into a suburb, with a fine, listed underground station and a rush of house building, spreading like ripples on a pond, till it met the Edwardian terraces radiating out from Palmers Green railway station. These were the streets I played in as a child – on the pavement and in the road – with marbles, roller skates, bikes. Everybody knew everyone, and a grumpy neighbour once called my mum and insisted I be made to scrub my hopscotch squares off the pavement outside her house. We knew the ‘funny man’ whose house you didn’t go near, and the housebound lady who sat at her window with tins of sweets in the summer.

    The haphazard demolition of country houses, village pubs and shops in Southgate continued into the 1970s, as young architects and planners replaced them with buildings which hover on the cusp of unremarkable and ugly. Their use has changed too: traditional butchers, bakers and grocers are now restaurants, coffee bars, estate agents and charity shops. Happily, the planners didn’t get their hands on the parks: Grovelands, Broomfield and Arnos, all named for the country estates they once were. These are where we paddled in streams or played on the health-and-safety nightmare of 1960s swings and roundabouts; nobody knew where, home in time for tea.

    Beautifully maintained local parks, leafy side roads and generous gardens are one side of the happy compromise of suburbia. The other side is the proximity of central London. Most Sunday afternoons my dad would take us to a museum or gallery or market. He’d roller skated round the City as a child, played football in the moat of the Tower and educated himself at the British Museum, and was better than any tour guide. He knew the history and use of every building we passed, and taught me the mantra of city sightseeing, ‘Look up, always look up!’ The art, architecture, culture and bustle of London was handed down to me as my birthright, and thrills me still.

    My school was named after an ancient Southgate oak tree, which the school song claimed was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Our school uniform was bottle green, presumably in deference to the Oak, but the population was firmly divided between the blue of Spurs and the red of Arsenal, two tribes with villages of their own – Tottenham and Highbury. The fanciable boys were Spurs supporters; the bovver-boys were Gunners. I knitted a blue and white striped scarf, which insistently curled in from the edges, but I hung around on the thrilling edges of the tough gang. In my teens, entertainment was close at hand, with innumerable local youth clubs, a cinema, a dodgy nightclub, and many pubs which turned a blind eye to under-age drinking. The only things which remain are a few of the pubs, a swimming pool and the market in nearby Enfield.

    In my later teens, I added more villages to my map of London – the bars of Covent Garden, the late-night hamburger joints of Hampstead. In the 1970s and 80s it was possible to drive to Central London or Hampstead and park right outside your destination.

    I left London for University and my first job, but was soon drawn home by family, work, friends and the call of the city itself. Coming back to London from living away, the metallic smell of the tube was the first sign that I was home. The tube is the neural network which has always connected me to wherever I need to go. I wonder how many hours of my life have been spent underground, reading or people-watching. Even after a lifetime, I’m woefully ignorant about how to walk around London, but the tube map is emblazoned on my brain. Travelling on the tube in rush hour can still be unpleasant, but it used to be worse. Every carriage was packed full of smokers, the wooden floors littered with fag ends; we all arrived at work smelling like ash-trays. And though we still like to complain about London Transport, overseas students are amazed at the frequency and efficiency of our public transport service. The tube is what makes living in suburbia the best of both worlds: the art, culture and shops of central London are only 35 minutes away, while real country walks are within 15 minutes drive. So, it’s not fashionable and it’s not arty, but it’s my London, and I sing suburbia.

    The Londoner
    Metallic tap water, drawn from the Thames,
    tastes of home, like the clean iron smell
    of the Tube, scent of rain on concrete and brick.
    The slap of pavements suits my soles,
    Ludgate, Highgate test my thighs and calves.

    And if her neon flickers through my nerves
    or the fury of her motorists lodges
    sometimes in my bile duct, at least
    her bright people teem my thoughts
    leap like commuters from moving trains

    stream over bridges in scramble and haste
    jostle with the shove and cry of markets;
    while Fleet and Tyburn run hidden in my veins
    to the great river which flows through me
    with her tides, slow curves, reflected light.

    Maggie Butt is an ex-journalist and BBC TV producer turned poet and
    novelist. She is a Londoner to her bones. This is the twenty-fourth article in
    our regular series of “My London”.