London, in early Autumn

 

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Category: Travel Date: 16 Oct 97


‘For a while anyway, you need to be lonely until you can be alone’

 

‘Now I grasp the city and become a part of it’

 

‘...I felt I was being followed, but walked... overcoming fears creates courage’

 

London 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.

 

I 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.

 

Even 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.

 

A 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 alone.

 

At 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.

 

Like 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.

 

Quick cameos

The 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.

 

In 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.

 

Weaving 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.

 

An 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.

 

You 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.

 

There 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.”

 

A 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.

 

Maybe 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 “Sensation”.

 

I 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 go.

 

Another 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.

 

In 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 Zimbabwe.

 

They 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.

 

The 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.

Sequel: A diary of three days in Paris by two students - one young, another ageing.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur