Harry Mount is the eighth writer in the My London series. Harry is a journalist, whose latest book is ‘How England Made the English.’
A few years after I left university, quite a lot of my old friends started coming down with an odd complaint – Londonitis.
When they told me things weren’t going so well, I asked them what the trouble was. Something to do with work? Girlfriend problems?
‘No,’ they said, ‘Nothing too serious. It’s just London – I can’t go on living in such a big city.’
At the age of twenty-five, it had never occurred to me that anyone could hate London. I also got bored, miserable, angry … Not because of girlfriends – I still had my long-term girlfriend from university. But jobs – yes. I was training to be a barrister and hating it.
Still, on my long list of annoying, misery-making things, London could never have been on it. London was where I’d been born and brought up; where I went to school. I had gone away from London to university; to return home was the most natural thing in the world.
My Londonitis-suffering friends had come from all over the place to Oxford – Yorkshire, the Home Counties, Cornwall. They also had an elemental pull back to where they were from – and it wasn’t a huge, strange city, full of loud noises, strangers and overpriced restaurants.
Dr. Johnson got it wrong. They weren’t tired of life; they were tired of metropolitan life.
Even as they discovered the quiet bits of the city I had known from childhood – Kenwood, Hampstead, the Regent’s Canal – that elemental pull continued to work on them.
If anything, it has grown stronger over the last fifteen or so years – I’m now forty-two. Those friends who didn’t leave in their late twenties and early thirties are leaving now – either to go back to their childhood counties, or to quiet, rural places that imitate them fairly closely.
I have left, too, for spells. For two years – about a decade ago – I was a New York correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. There are things I still miss about Manhattan – the year-round blue skies in particular, though I don’t miss the summer heat. Every morning in August, I’d listen to the weatherman on NPR radio – ‘It’s another bee-yootiful day out there – 100 degrees for the third day running!’ – and think he must be mad.
I loved the art deco top of the Chrysler Building; bicycling up and down the gentle curve of the Brooklyn Bridge; the Noo Yawk accents and the weathered faces of the old men selling sea bass at the Fulton Fish Street Market, now sadly no more.
But I had to go to New York to realise how much more I loved London. I had my epiphany at a swanky journalists’ party in TriBeCa, the ludicrously trendy area in downtown New York, popularised by Robert De Niro.
The party was held at the family home of two successful hacks, in a converted 1930s warehouse loft with a high ceiling and a mezzanine floor, all exposed bricks and hefty steel beams. At around nine, the couple’s charming children – around eight and nine, I suppose – crept out of their beds and stared down at the boozing hacks from the mezzanine floor.
Admiring the scene, several glasses of chilled white wine into the evening, I said to a friend, another London expat journalist, ‘My God, what an amazing flat.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘But it’s not as nice as your parents’ house – or mine.’
He wasn’t saying it in a show-off way. He was just stating a fact. Our lucky parents in their early Victorian houses – mine in Islington, his in Holland Park – lived in far greater splendour: bigger houses with more elegant, nineteenth-century lines; bigger gardens. Well, any garden would have been bigger – the American couple would have killed for any outside space at all.
I realised at that moment that I’d been going through an intense period of cultural cringe, if not quite a bout of Londonitis. Everything seemed bigger and better because it was part of New York, even if it was in fact smaller and uglier.
Towards the end of my time in America, I started taking a huge, half-hour loop of a bike ride around Manhattan’s southern tip, rather than going for the quick five-minute trip from my Greenwich Village flat to the Telegraph’s SoHo office.
It was only later that I realised why I was doing this. I had a subliminal, unexpressed need for the open views across the Hudson and the East River that inner Manhattan couldn’t provide; the open views that London, even with its new, horrible skyscrapers, still gives in spades.
I adored New York’s skyscrapers. But I didn’t like the way they blocked out the sun. I also adored the hugger-mugger, non-stop thrills of the foreign correspondent life – biking from a formal UN reception to a silly nightclub in SoHo, where anorexic fashionistas jigged on the dancefloor around a Land Rover, provided by the car company’s promotions department.
But I didn’t like the crowds. The reason Manhattan was so exciting was the reason it was so tiring – it’s a tiny, overpopulated sliver of land, with too many people having to occupy the same space.
Quite often, I’d come out of the office to find someone leaning on my bike. They didn’t want to steal it or anything – there just wasn’t enough space in the city to do much leaning on things without having to lean on something belonging to somebody else.
We’ve all read how London has become the world’s capital over the last decade: the oligarchs’ refuge; the super-magnet for the talented, not just from across the world, but from the rest of Britain.
But, still, I never find anyone leaning on my bike in London, even now. There’s plenty of space for everyone, thanks to the low-level, human-scale buildings that still, thank God, dominate the place.
Build a skyscraper, and there are 1,000 people in it who pour out in search of sandwiches, transport and bikes to lean on. Build a terraced house – and there are only five or six people inside who need to colonise the surrounding public space.
These days, I’m no London Pollyanna. As I reach middle age, I look back on my London youth with a huge dose of nostalgia; at today’s London with a dollop of bitterness.
It’s not that it was sunnier then, as cliché would have it. There are too many memorable storms for that. I remember standing in the rain in central London for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. For her Diamond Jubilee pageant in 2012, I was watching telly indoors – but the rain was still falling.
The London of my childhood seems emptier, simpler, poorer. Some of that is true; particularly the poor bit. Islington in the Seventies was a distant, impoverished cousin of its modern, slick, consumption-crazed incarnation.
But, really, another old cliché is at work: London hasn’t changed that much; I have. I’ve become grumpier, more confident and less willing to accept London’s shortcomings than I was as a shy child.
My mood reacts to a disproportionate degree to London’s eternal faults now. But it also responds more sensitively to its many surviving beauties.
My north London almost-neighbour, A.N. Wilson, once wrote that one of the consolations of ageing is a greater appreciation of the natural world. That’s certainly true for me.
Now I take in the first blackbirds of spring, singing all along Market Road in Islington in the early morning; where, before, I only noticed the prostitutes that used to ply their trade on that street. I listen to the swifts screaming over the terraces of Kentish Town, where I live today. I even note down the time of year I first see them, like an avian trainspotter. Some time around late April, I get worried if they haven’t turned up.
I really noticed these heightened reactions to London’s pros and cons last week. It was shortly after I’d been commissioned to write this article – so I suppose I was consciously logging my reaction to everyday events.
It was the height of summer – and I was just returning from Malta, where I’d gone for a book I’m writing, following in Odysseus’s footsteps.
Malta’s neighbour, Gozo, is thought to be Homer’s Ogygia, where Odysseus is washed upon the shore, clinging to a single timber, the only remnant of his shipwrecked boat. He takes refuge with the knockout, golden-voiced nymph, Calypso, in her cave – for seven years.
I tracked down Calypso’s cave – but there was no gorgeous nymph there to greet me. Still, I’d loved Valletta’s terraced houses, with their delicate balconies carved out of Malta’s two limestones, one an off-white, the other a golden yellow.
So I was in a grumpy mood as I returned home on the Gatwick Express at around midnight. I was made even grumpier by the fool tourist at Victoria, who’d got his oversized holdall clamped in the jaws of the ticket barrier.
It was a Friday night, and my bike ride back across Oxford Street had all the worst hallmarks of London life: drunk Londoners shouting at each other, some with anger, some with crazed pleasure; more fool tourists ambling across Regent Street without looking.
But then I crossed Marylebone Road and made my way up the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park. The road is closed to cars – but not bikes – on Friday nights. So I had the Outer Circle to myself.
The only lights were the sparse, old-fashioned street lamps, trailing away in a long enfilade ahead of me. When I’d left two days earlier, London had been suffering the kind of heatwave that doesn’t suit the city – muggy and close, even at night. That oppressive heat had lifted, and there was a cool undercurrent to the gentle wind in my face – perfect bicycling weather.
As I made my way along the edge of the park, I noticed a large, half-moon-sized puddle obscuring the double-yellow lines to my left. London had been through one of its rare tropical drenchings and the air was rich with petrichor. The Outer Circle felt like I feel after a shower – invigorated, fresh, light.
Please forgive the vulgar analogy, but Kingsley Amis said the essential elements of a hangover cure must include a shower, a shave, an evacuation of the bowels and bladder, and, ideally, the sexual act; self-applied if necessary. Once these steps are taken, you begin the journey back to a modicum of healthy self-respect.
I wasn’t hungover. I’d only had half a bottle of bottle of gently resinous Maltese Palatino wine the night before in my Valletta hotel. But, as I’d exited Victoria Station, I had been bathed in the mild self-loathing – and humanity-loathing – that often accompany hangovers.
I hadn’t had a shower – or any of the other Amis recommendations. But London had had a shower – and its improved mood improved mine.
A German friend once told me a natural traveller’s heart always lifts on leaving his home airport and sinks on his return; while a natural home-lover’s heart does the exact opposite.
My heart doesn’t lift on return to London these days – the architecture of Gatwick Airport, and the Hell of its passport queue, guarantee that. But a while later – after the fifteen minutes it takes to bike from Victoria to Regent’s Park – my heart lifts more often, and higher, in London than anywhere else.
I’m now pretty certain that I’m immune to Londonitis for life.