Sunday, 20 July 2014

Part I: An unashamedly smug love letter to London

When I moved to London 20 months ago I hated it. I always said I’d never move here, which of course meant just nothing at all. I could see that some bits of London were good, but generally it was dirty, crowded and people were rude, unhealthy and unhappy.

But now. But now. Something clicked about six weeks ago. I no longer walk around feeling self-conscious and trying to keep up with London. I amble down the street and I know how to get around. Where I used to hate that people bumped into each other on the tube and didn’t apologise, now I understand that we’re all just trying to get where we’re going with minimum fuss and we’re all part of the same tribe. It is, in fact, a mark of being on the same side, that we don’t feel we have to apologise to one another. And that’s when you know you’ve been had. You’ve been Londonised. And it’s kind of a warm fuzzy feeling. Tourists are perpetually in my way, but I stop and give them directions. Last week, I witnessed three spontaneous acts of joy or kindness within two minutes on my commute home (Piccadilly Circus to Ealing Common, most days, if any Londoners are wondering). You see what you look for. I work my 45 hour week, I party with my friends, I go on dates, I pay my taxes and I own this city! At least that’s how it feels lately. I am triumphant! I am…happy. I know, it’s weird.

So here’s why.
Last Friday, I left work early because it was a gorgeous evening. My corner of paradise is St. James’s  - and my office is just off the square. I walked across the road to my hairdresser, Andrea (a melodramatic Italian) to book an appointment for next week and then wandered two or three blocks east to Trafalgar Square. I learned about the renaissance at the National for a bit, and then I went to see the BP Portrait Prize exhibition. Both were fantastic and both were free. And open til 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays.

Here’s the thing about London. It is beautiful and it is characterful. But in a subtle way. You have to know what you’re looking at. The mishmash of architecture, the throng of creativity and competition and the cleverly designed gardens jammed into every spare space are every bit the marvel that the rolling landscapes and dramatic cliffs of Cornwall are. Neighbourhoods are characterfully, abruptly, distinct.

I strolled through the humid streets back towards my office, and I took a note of a couple of al fresco dining spots I’d never noticed before – so little do I venture to this side of Haymarket. As I rounded the corner into Charles II Street - home of my office, which is at the other end of the road from where I was now walking - I came upon a seagull eating a pigeon. Head first – wings last, I could only presume. An overgrown hipster (I guessed he had accidentally left Soho on some errand) was filming it on his phone. “Charming” I remarked, and gave him a wry smile. He agreed in a self deprecating sort of way. It occurred to me that in St. James’s (about 400 yards ahead of me – across Lower Regent Street) we would never let something so barbaric happen. Sounds idealistic – snobbish even, but it’s also…true. We just don’t have seagulls over there, across the road. I followed the thought process through and decided that maybe it was because we don’t have rubbish. There are so few eateries in St. James’s (we’re all offices and our rubbish goes into the basements to be collected) that for better or for worse, we have pigeons and butterflies and crows and bumblebees and that’s all, as far as flying things worth remarking upon.Thus, the neighbourhoods differ, and it's amusing noticing the differences.

Back in my own neighbourhood, I thought about treating myself to a confi duck and crushed potatoes at Villandry (where the host, Angus, knows my name), but I wasn’t quite hungry enough having snacked at the office, so I popped into my Pret (also across from my office), and Natalia was working the late shift. These are the people who supply me an egg mayonnaise and crispy bacon half baguette every morning, so it only make sense that I know their names. Also, at Pret, they’re allowed to give things away for free – and I get free coffee and croissants and goodies at least once or twice a week, just because I chat and I care, and so do they. Although they’re part owned by McDonald’s (don’t EVER eat the Pret egg muffin unless you like egg McMuffins and want to instantly gain weight), they have some things right. So Natalia wouldn’t let me pay for my Jambon Beurre which was a really nice thing at 9pm at night. We chatted about the exhibit (she’s a photography student), and I went home. Hard not to be happy with that eh?

Knowing London is like knowing a language. Again, it’s in the subtleties. You are oriented to a neighbourhood through careful observation, and by picking up on the geography, the fashion, the topics of conversation and the routines. Once more I was flying solo after work yesterday (“I’m single because I was born that way” – Mae West). I left early again (love my job), wished our doorman a good weekend and decided to take the scenic route home. Instead of heading to Piccadilly Circus, I walked along Pall Mall, and giggled at fat financiers struggling in the heat. Office managers nattered to friends on their mobiles and walked purposely towards Charing Cross in their Middletonesque dresses and loafers or heels (for those of us playing the game) or in their ballet flats or trainers (for those not).

Passing one fat controller I heard him telling two fairly striking Middletonians that “that is the RAC…”. He was talking about the Royal Automobile Club, which is one of the more exclusive private members' clubs in London where the go-getters go get their 6:30am gym sessions and 6:30pm drinking sessions and everything in between. And it is an impressive building, with impressively top hatted staff and impressive Bentleys and Royces to-ing and fro-ing. The (mostly) men who frequent it are not the rich, happy bastards that the lefties in my past lives would like them to be. As far as I can tell, they are mostly very tired men who have the “privilege” of feeling that they will never please the families who paid for their £250,000 education, they will never have achieved enough and that they never have enough time to spend with their families. They are the ultimate strivers, they don’t seem to know better and I pity them their guilded cages just as I admire their disciplined minds.

As I reached the Queen’s Chapel at the end of Pall Mall, I saw a small, discreet horse-drawn carriage – no more than a black box really – exit the Chapel and turn left on Pall Mall towards St. James’s Palace, where the two gray mares obediently paused and were granted entry by the on duty bobbies. The carriage had a tiny Regina seal on the door and the black and white clothed, grey haired man in the back looked less than noteworthy. The two beefeaters nearby swapped places and all went on as usual. And I felt as though I was the only pedestrian around to see it.

I cut through one of those hidden passages from St. James’s into Green Park which had taken me 18 months to stumble upon. I was very annoyed when I did eventually find these passages a couple of months ago, because for the whole of last summer, if I wanted to get off a stop early at Green Park and walk to work, I had to walk along Piccadilly and past the Ritz. And although the Ritz is very lovely, at 8:30am, the commuter pedestrian traffic outside it is not. And so the dichotomy of London goes. Every morning I had walked that way last summer, I would get stuck behind a grumpy PA, or a construction worker – and they would invariably be smoking. And it was disgusting at that time in the morning, and sad for me that their lives demanded that level of medication. Needless to say, a walk through the park and a cut-through to St. James’s was a very welcome discovery.

So last night, I got to Green Park and most of London had beaten me to it. There were rom-com-worthy couples merrily pulling up deck chairs (£1.60 an hour) and popping Prosecco and flirting outrageously. There were prim auction-house types settling down to an expensive-looking picnic from Carluccios, complete with hampers. There were confused looking black people trying to decide whether they were allowed to use the deck chairs (tourists probably, but a thought-provoking and significant sight, given the cosmopolitan nature of London). There were be-hatted, be-jeweled ladies, having just left some event at Buck Palace, one of them told me. Some twenty-something lads wearing lots of bracelets and not much else where trying to teach their friend a forward flip. I sat and watched them for a while…

Then I walked west through the park. As I left the crowds behind me, I entered canoodle territory. Staid shirt and shoe Englishmen were trying to be polite about tongue kissing exotic beauties under trees. Some Central American (or South American – I can never tell) girls were in full bikini sun-bathe mode and looked just fantastic. A strange, lost looking man wearing a tuxedo sat all by himself in the long grass.

At Hyde Park Corner the ambitious cyclists braved the heat in the cycle lane on £900 bikes and the teenage Japanese tourists on Boris bikes looked around themselves consciously - to see if anyone was papping them presumably - and they generally looked very pleased with themselves.

Walking from the Knightsbridge part of Hyde Park up to the Marble Arch part is like visiting two different countries. Near Knightsbridge, apart from the tourists in the rose garden marvelling at the wisteria-clad arches, the park-goers are almost all young (not very exotic-looking) couples not tongue kissing, or daughters of minor oligarchs writing in their diaries. A yellow Lamborghini interrupted my musings and loudly let all of Hyde Park know that its owner had money as it raced along Knightsbridge at 35 miles an hour and I headed up to the Serpentine. It seemed that every vaguely good looking white young person in a mile was sunning themselves by the water at the bar and grill. And some Eastern Europeans were being given false directions by some bored and mischievous looking builders, so I told them off and walked the ladies to Marble Arch. Within five minutes we were surrounded by black people. None of those down in Knightsbridge’s Hyde Park – but here at Marble Arch’s Hyde Park, the girls were strutting and preening, the guys were playing football and two very hip hop looking gents were dragging a speaker pumping out a Drake song on a trolley behind them. So there’s still work to do in London regarding upward mobility for those underprivileged segments of society, but I do my bit (volunteering, careers mentoring etc.) and hope that others do too. I love the mixture of cultures in London, and I notice that on my lunch breaks when I lay out in the square in Investment Management central that we are a very diverse lot in that particular corner. I’m excited to see what the next 10 years brings for the city.

Last night, I got the central line home and relaxed in my beautiful flat in Ealing. When I got to London, I was lodging in a room in a tiny flat which wasn’t very comfortable and I felt very poor and sad. But my gorgeous Swedish friend (who I met here last October) and I have recently taken over the lease from my best friend of 20 years, who has moved. It was really hard living in London for the first 18 months. But because I stuck with it, and because my dear friends and family dutifully talked me into seeing it through (necessary on a regular basis), I was in the right place at the right time with the right friends and I had the opportunity to land this great flat at a great rental price. Which is kind of how I got the great job. And kind of how I meet great people and have great experiences here. By sticking. As Jane Austen famously said: "Time can do almost anything". 

And nowhere is that truer than in London.

See Part II: Candid advice to those migrating to London here

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