a while anyway, you need to be lonely until you can be alone’
I grasp the city and become a part of it’
felt I was being followed, but walked... overcoming fears creates
in early autumn is still tinged with summer - freshly hewn grass, full
green branches, baskets of small jewel-coloured flowers on balconies,
window sills and streetlights. It can still get hot. But the tourists
have, for the most part, gone home and the russet leaves are beginning to
pool together under trees. The sun fades into a soft gray chill and then
glows warm again.
remember this time last year reading late one night in my study in
Trinidad during one of our quick and furious tropical storms. The windows
clattered and lightning darted into the room after another uneven drum of
thunder - the kind which thrills and terrifies you as a child. I was
reading Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners - a volume of short stories
which I think in about 40 years will become a cult book like The Great
Gatsby or The Good Soldier or Bonjour Tristesse. Give it some time, Sam.
In the final story, Selvon tells his “girl” why he loves London, and
by the end of it you get the feeling that his tenderness towards his
“girl” and London is one and the same.
though you can pick up the phone and dial half a dozen friends, the
loneliness here can be enormous. A space which you can either fill in with
courage and use as food for the spirit, or drown in. In this vast space it
is possible to be intimidated by the overpriced bars. The brutally dusty
trains where people pressed up against one another are tense with trying
to be invisible, where the shuttling crowds can make you feel you are the
only person not invited to the party.
friend here agrees it is as necessary to feed your spirit as it is to put
gas in your car. And you can
do that. In anonymity, in bookshops, in smoky basement jazz clubs, in a
baroque church, through long streets that lead to surprises. But you
cannot do it surrounded by family and friends. You cannot do it if you
feel safe. For a while anyway, you need to be lonely until you can be
first you think that everyone is running in the same direction - you are
left behind by a flurry of people, a nanny with a pram, a student with
yellow flares and stilts for shoes, an old lady. Then you realise you are
walking slowly - naturally, you tell yourself. You would be mad to walk
fast on Frederick Street because you would be drenched in sweat in five
minutes. You quicken your pace.
Forrest Gump you walk and you walk and you walk, bracing your face to the
cool air. Your hair is untidy and your feet ache.
old docks by the Thames have been spruced up with bright paint and wine
bars. Strands of tiny bulbs flanking the river light up barges, set off
the dull gold dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, show off the jagged stone
walls of the Houses of Parliament. Across the river is the South Bank
where I have sat in on lunchtime jazz, and bought second-hand books.
Notting-Hill Gate - a bizarre sight. A hearse drawn by a horse and
carriage with the word “BROTHER” on it done in white roses, followed
by a fleet of black limos and veiled weeping women. A fashionable funeral.
Bayswater men sit in street cafes smoking long hookahs. God knows what is
in them. Feet aching I get on the tube and all around me people are
reading. A vent lets in cold filthy air but the spirit soars as you no
longer feel like a freak for carrying a book around everywhere. Another
day of walking dawns. Ignore the pain. Just limp.
out of Covent Gardens pubs, shops and an army of entertainers and freaks -
a man on the saxophone playing the blues, a clown painted in silver
juggles, a mournful harpist sits in a trance - into Soho which offers
mawkish sexual delights, and then carries your nose to the delicious
Chinese smells of Chinatown.
aimless turn and here is a market - incense, earrings, thin Indian cotton
skirts. A reminder of home. I almost missed a troop of homeless people
wrapped like mummies in dirty brown cloth, sleeping, drunk, begging,
hungry. I find myself, on impulse, phoning a friend that I have not seen
in years from a trademark red phone booth smelling strongly of urine and
stale cigarette smoke, covered with tawdry photos of young half-naked
girls, with their telephone numbers and areas of expertise. I dial, eager
for contact - get another phone and step out with a heavy heart, only to
have it lift again at the sight of a sign outside of the Church of St
Martin-In-The Fields: “The Four Seasons by Candlelight”. And not just
Vivaldi and Bach.
are required to go into the church and descend into the crypt bookshop for
tickets. I was unprepared for the beauty of the stained glass, the long
spotlight of dusty light from stained glass into the cool dark church, the
frescoes, the strains of Vivaldi from the practising orchestra. In a rare
moment of peace I light a candle and emerge out of the dark old and
classic to bright sunlight to a tremendous roar in Trafalgar Square.
Fountains, pigeons, children, another freak show blocked by gaping crowds.
is a shift. You are no longer lonely. Merely alone. A feeling that the
common fund of humanity runs deep. Now I grasp the city and become part of
it. The walk continues to St James Park. And the throng divides itself and
becomes single characters. A mother smothers her little girl, repeating
ecstatically, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
girl sits writing under a tree, brushing off tears, lovers jauntily use
one another’s bodies to do sit-ups, an old woman’s face lights up as a
young man, obviously her son, approaches. The fashions of the trendy do
not quite work. They are clumsy and romantic but endearing because they
are hopeful. So here I sit in my deck chair - a diary, a Time-Out
(a magazine about what’s on), a cheese sandwich and mineral water
admiring the long strokes of evening sun on the old stone of the palace -
at the contrast of the bright patches of flowers with the pastel lake.
this “spiritual” stuff is just an excuse to pack in half a dozen
exhibitions, six plays, five films, four parks and a dozen friends in
coffee shops and Thai restaurants in two and a half weeks. The spiritual
choices include a controversial exhibition of young British art at the
Royal Academy which, among other oddities, features the innards of a
rotten cow, a portrait of a child murderer, Myra Henley, miniature human
corpses, and polka dots on a canvas. It is appropriately titled
flick through dozens of choices, jazz, soul and rock, famous walks, fringe
theater, a talk by Gore Vidal, the outrageous and the classic. It is the
possibilities that I love. Just knowing Henry V is on and I can go to a
Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery is enough. I do not need to
booth, cleaner, and I get through to a friend. Come to Guildford she says.
A train journey later I am walking across an enormous heath looking down
at a town, along canals, wild roses, raspberry bushes. We laugh as we
walk, then trudge up a hill peeping at old stone cottages. We have tea in
a home where a vine of real grapes adorns the front door, an apple tree
with its small crisp fruit is dessert. There was also the walk, late
evening, from the bus stop where I felt I was being followed, but walked,
not ran, thinking overcoming fears creates courage.
the end it was not the choices or the wonderful sense of possibilities
that London offers. It was my friends. Picking up a two, three, even
seven-year-old friendship. Making salad in a kitchen, laughing
uproariously in smoky rooms, telling bizarre stories of the way pigs are
killed in an abattoir or how the German Au-pair who looks like Uma Thurman
ran off with the family friend, or angsting over a BBC assignment to
work too hard, some suffer from broken love affairs, or are in the middle
of a crisis on what they are doing in the world. They are married and
single, self-employed, and rising rapidly, tremendously talented and
courageous, in flux and jobless. It was my friends, drinking red wine
every night, telling weird, sad and funny stories, being in turn
maliciously and hilariously mimicking and mocking, vulnerable, loud and
kind, but always so honest and generous, who make London, London.
light has faded. Reluctantly I give up my deck chair to a man in gray
overalls thinking I know now why, for Selvon, tenderness for his
“girl” and London was one and the same.
A diary of three days in Paris by two students - one young, another