The other morning I met a friend at the V&A. We toured the Undressed exhibit then lunch. Afterwards, I wrote in my notebook:
He tells me, “I’ve lived in London for 25 years and been so busy I’ve never walked through Regent’s Park”. Now he walks everywhere, to pace himself amidst the rush of the city.
His words struck a chord. For seven years I nine-to-fived in London. Walking as part of a commute is the antithesis of the mindful ambulation endorsed by philosophers from Epictetus to Henry David Thoreau. The commute walk is head down, upper body tense and tilted forward, watching for gaps in the flow of bodies approaching the ticket gates on the Underground, gauging the steps you need to cut past the guy with the roller bag and hit the escalator before the mum with the double buggy makes it impassable.
Work-day walking was a little better. At Q, I ran errands: shopping for a piano-key tie on Carnaby Street, collecting prints from Soho, buying biscuits and net bags of clementines from Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street. These forays acquainted me with Liberty of London’s faux-Tudor architecture and elaborately dressed windows; with the vegetable vendors and record shops of Berwick Street market; with the Photographers’ Gallery on Ramillies Street; and the assorted production houses, coffee shops and restaurants clustered thickly on Soho’s small streets.
What I missed in these region-specific forays was a sense of the city’s continuity. Tottenham Court Road, Liverpool Street, Waterloo were dots on the Underground. I knew the area around them, but couldn’t traverse the spaces in between. It is only this year, as a visitor, I had time to walk between stations.
When my friend and I parted ways after lunch I set off on foot through the West End, stringing together beads of memory.
Covent Garden, 1997
My sister took me to the UK as a high school graduation present. I was obsessed with England, my idea of it, anyway. Growing up, she read me British books: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, Sherlock Holmes. Fiction and reality collided in Covent Garden, a familiar name exploded to vivid life. We walked the cobbled square, ogled the glittering windows of the tiny arcade shops, stared at the silvered street performers frozen beside their upturned top hats. It was the beginning of my realisation that London could be more than just a fairy tale.
The Strand, 1999
One of my reasons for being an English major was Penn’s exchange program with King’s College London. Our lectures were in Aldwych, next to Somerset House, the nearest tube: Charing Cross. The Strand, which connects the two, became as familiar as the main street of my childhood. There are two pubs there where my friends and I drank, for reasons lost to history and habit.
One, the Coal Hole, was where I tried to impress James by drinking a pint of bitter. In the end, I had to order a pint of lemonade as a mixer. The Lyceum was our other haunt. It’s where we drank till closing time then staggered up to Trafalgar Square in pursuit of night buses, where we celebrated birthdays and end-of-term. Where we argued, made out and made up. It was such a part of our emotional landscape that it’s where we met for welcome back drinks when I moved to London in 2001.
The London Eye, 2002
Millennial projects like The London Eye were still fresh when I started life in London. My first boyfriend in the city took me on a ride in the London Eye before it was even branded. It was a lovely, romantic gesture. I was thrilled until we got about halfway up and my lifelong fear of heights kicked in. The glass bubble felt unspeakably fragile, the motion of the wheel excruciatingly slow. For most of the ride I stared stiffly at the horizon, trying to convince my body it wasn’t hundreds of feet in the air.
Charing Cross, 2003
The messiest, most joyous years of my London life were spent in 4 Mallet Road, Hither Green, SE13. My university buddies Andy and James were kind enough to let me move into
the spare room. The carpet was threadbare, the plumbing shot, the heating unreliable, and my behaviour for most of our joint tenure, outrageous. But it had a beautiful garden, an accommodating sofa, and they were — are — two of my favourite people on earth. Charing Cross was our London terminal. I can’t walk through it, or past it, without a rush of gratitude for the years it represents.
Old Vic, 2012
All love affairs go through phases. In 2007 I left London for Ibiza. For the next few years the city was at most a stopover. Then, in 2012, in a fit of respectability I got a staff writer job based a couple streets away from the old Q office, moved into my ex-husband’s spare room, and resumed the commute.
The chief bright spots in that long, grey year were weekends with my friend Ruth. It was she I roped into going to Playboy of the Western World at the Old Vic one Saturday night. It was with her I drank three bottles of wine the night before. She had to steer me from the station the the theatre, and wait while I was sick during the interval. It wasn’t a great production of Playboy but it was an unforgettable outing.
Big Ben, 2016
My boyfriend and I made our first trip together to London. It gave me the pleasure to which Tom in The Great Gatsby alludes of feeling more at home in place by virtue of introducing it to someone else.
When he wasn’t working I took him to my old haunts like Bistro in Soho, Gordon’s Wine Bar on Embankment, and Itadaki Zen in King’s Cross. We discovered new ones together: Tostado on St Anne’s Court, Simmon’s in King’s Cross, Artisan Gluten Free Bakery on Upper Street.
I also introduced him to one of my favourite walks — along Victoria Embankment, over Hungerford Bridge, and up the Southbank to Blackfriars. On this route you see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the National Theatre, the Shard, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, and strange, sleek new buildings like The Shard. It is a journey that makes me fall in love again. For all its flaws and foibles, London is the city that shaped my life.
Writing, like walking, is a way of paying attention. It takes us deeper into the world around us. Thinking or talking can be like the commute — you get from A to B but don’t notice the surroundings. To write, you must slow down, look close. It is difficult, though not impossible, to blurt onto a page. (Write “I love you” or “I hate you”. Compare it to the feeling of saying the words out loud. The very act of typing, or forming words with a pen, adds a layer of composure, whether you like it or not.)
If you want to fall in love with your life, start writing about it. You will begin to see small beauties in the quotidian blur. You will find clarity in hard situations and peace amidst emotional turmoil. If you can, write. If you feel you can’t, walk till the words flow.