For about four hours last night there was a 50% chance I was going to have to fly to Bucharest for three days next week. Morning brings the news that I am not, in fact, flying to Bucharest, and I’m a little sad. Not because of Bucharest though, but because of the possibility of 3 hours in Heathrow, or, if I were really creative, a night in London.
London, and the UK in general, but mostly London, have this hold on me that’s, well, complicated. I feel a bit tortured about it, because it’s so boring and typical for someone to the US to be all, Oooo, shiny, British things even if I don’t think I’m doing that.
It’s more that London is what New York City used to be like, in the 80s, when my parents would take twelve-year-old me out to the Odeon at 2am and Madonna would be at the next time. It seethes and teems and pulsates; there is a reason why all the aliens on Doctor Who talk about how humans clamber over this world like insects. London’s a hundred neighborhoods layered on each other and grown in upon themselves like hives.
It’s also that Brick Lane feels like home.
And that huge chunks of my really weird education are only normal, or even useful, in the UK.
And that I really, really like the supermarkets.
It’s that there are women with hair as short as mine in ads for lingerie shops, that men know more than one knot for their ties, and that people aren’t revolted because my teeth don’t glow.
It’s St. Katharine’s Dock. And that I can look up and navigate by that awful bullet building, like I used to with the World Trade Center, before it came down. It’s that “the City” means something there, just like it does here, only different. And that I am somehow more acutely aware of everyone’s striving there, than I am here, which doesn’t really make any sense at all, but then, I suppose, these things rarely do.
For years, Sydney has been my long lost city, even as my time there was filled, not inappropriately, with journal entries about how far from everything it was, how exiled. But London’s, arguably, from where it was exiled.
So London’s all mythology for me, and nothing like anything I was told when I was ten and had to go on school trips each May 14 to lay daffodils at a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park, before the teachers told us about the British girls we boarded during the War and then served us pineapple cake because it was Miss Hew’s favorite.
I know I seem, very easily, pretentious and lost. A lot of the time I’m playing and people don’t get that. But a lot of the time I’m not, and people don’t get that either. I grew up in this other world that doesn’t really exist, which may be why so much of my work is about defictionalization. My mother chose the school she did for me because, “All the little girls wore white gloves, like in the 1940s movies.”
I was five. I didn’t ask for that. It’s just what happened. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. It is also one that I am supposed to regret or feel shame about or guilt, but I just can’t.
But London, at least, recognizes the lies of my childhood. And better, doesn’t care.
I bet Bucharest is just lovely this time of year too.
8 thoughts on “London dreaming”
Yes, London is that for me too, and more broadly, so is England. The first time I set foot here, about fifteen years ago, it felt more powerfully like home than anywhere ever had, and that feeling has never wavered. For me I suspect the roots lie in my very bookish childhood, so that in a real sense I grew up in the literary England, which is just enough of an overlay on the everyday England to make it home. I love reading your reactions to London because I share them so strongly. I love that the culture here, flawed and messy as any human culture, nonetheless is one that embraces quiet eccentricity.
I think England is the world of our stories, or at least for me, English is the language of stories, and England the home of that language that doesn’t feel too far away from my own. I’m fiercely patriotic and love my country with all its flaws, but the only place I could consider settling without feeling alien would be the UK.
And yes, my god, they have lovely supermarkets.
In May of 2009, I visited London with my mom. I remember, as the plane slid lower over the green hills and long shadows, this feeling of home home home swept over me. Mom was a little surprised at how easily I slid into London, reading the Tube maps, accurately figuring out the best Oyster pass for us to use, and finding my way through a city that was wholly new to both of us. Part of it was my experience with NYC and how that translates into figuring out London. Another part, just as important, was growing up with British stories, just like the others who commented.
This piece resonated with me strongly. I’d love to go back to London!
I love London. A lot. I’ll probably be going there this summer (*hopes*), but my home away from from home is Dublin. When I visited there, it was like being somewhere I was always supposed to be, you know? Obviously, you do.
I love New York City, though, possibly because I spent an even amount of time on the Upper East or West Side and crashed with people who lived in Washington Heights. It was awesome.
I feel the same way about London. It felt so obvious how to get around. I just love it there…
I haven’t been since 2003, and I really, really want to go back. Not for the least of reasons that I have a friend I haven’t seen since that 2003 visit…
To me London is as much a state of mind, a feeling in my bones and a scent in the air as it is a spot on the map. As the hub of the Empire it used to draw the minds and hearts of millions all over the planet towards its streets and places. And this mighty gravity still reverberates across the centuries. It has acquired an almost mythical quality for me like no other place.
I just came back last month from a London trip. You have perfectly captured it.
You may want to get hold of China Mieville’s latest novel, Kraken, which, when it isn’t talking about the eponymous giant squid (an exhibit at the Natural History Museum), is completely utterly about London and the (largely fictional) mythologies that underly it. It’s a love-letter to the city.