Oct 3, 2011
About a month ago I went to London for an errand, and after it was done I had a few hours to kill so I figured I might as well walk around a bit. And as I walked around I tried to understand why I never go to London and feel like it’s a place I could live.
In fact I go there and I feel like it’s not a place anyone could live, let alone me, even though I know lots of people live in London and lots of people love it. I just don’t see anything there that suggests living on a human scale. The architecture is all mixed up – beautiful things, monstrosities that should never have been allowed to be built, but nothing really stands out, so your impression is never one of either beauty or ugliness or even of contrast, just of some big grey slab that’s muddy and muddled and doesn’t make any sense. The buildings are big but of course nothing is big inside, so you get the impression it was built for giants to look at but dwarves to live in (the opposite of the Tardis, I suppose). And it’s just so disparate, so desperate, so empty even when it’s crowded. In my two mile walk from Pimlico to Chelsea I saw nothing charming except at one point a broad tree-lined avenue which turned out only to be leafy and green because it bordered a hospital, and the lovely garden I could see through the fence was not for public consumption at all. Leafy London. Except most of it seems sterile and shoppy to me. Everyone is shopping, in a way.
So I tried shopping, too. I went into a shop, I bought nothing, I went back out again. It’s not that there weren’t plenty of pretty things; it’s that nothing suited me in that moment. I was a traveller; I wore stained jeans and an old flannel shirt and carried a heavy, sweaty rucksack.
It’s funny that even though I have a home I’m still window-shopping for places to live all the time. Every place I visit, even London, is a possibility. I only think of this now because I came across this piece by John McIntyre on André Aciman’s Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, which I haven’t read but would like to read. “Aciman,” writes McIntyre, “views the places he visits not with the wondering, landmark-seeking eye of a tourist, but with the speculative, assessing eye of a potential resident…He examines this habit at length in “The Contrafactual Traveler,” and concludes that, “I ‘connect’ not by saying, ‘Isn’t this lovely, picturesque hill town beautiful?’ but ‘Do I see myself living here?’”
The tube was crowded and on the way from Sloane Square to Paddington, an Irish group played live music in my carriage. They were good. They made me smile and think I could get used to that sort of thing. I guess in a way it’s why people live in places like London, it’s why people live in cities, because that sort of thing might happen and make you smile, whatever sort of thing “that” is, whatever makes you smile.
But anyhow I didn’t have any change to give them because I’d spent the last of my change on an artichoke and egg sandwich on artisan olive bread on the King’s Road. So I couldn’t show my appreciation and then they were gone, on the platform, and we were left alone, sweating and close. I did not really want to listen to my music anymore, although my headphones were still in and as it turned out my music had been playing the whole time, but very quietly, so I hadn’t noticed.
On the train back to Oxford I fell asleep accidentally, slumped against the window with my hand on my almost-full cup of coffee, my second weak, pointless latté of the day. I had tried to read Hemingway, well, I had read Hemingway, for a bit, but something about the way he described Gertrude Stein as having “immigrant hair” had started to grate on me, even though I had read the book before, and that particular story, in fact, many times, and knew I liked it. But it grated on me and grated on me, and I just sat there and read it over and over and over again – immigrant hair immigrant hair immigrant hair – wondering what does it mean, why does it bother me so much? Until I fell asleep slumped against the window, train crowded at midday, people everywhere, my weak latté still clutched in my hand.
I woke up and it was a muggy day in Oxford. The train station was ugly and for a moment, as I stumbled through the turnstile and stood remembering the way Paddington always makes you feel like you’re on the edge of something, that something new or big is just around the corner, it felt provincial. But I see myself living here anyway.