As a kid I would visit London once a year. Leaving in the dark of a Friday evening and returning in the similar gloom of Sunday afternoon. Always in the winter, always in a coach packed to the brim with bags and boy scouts. We would sleep in loose friendship groups on the floor of a large hall and eat at long shared tables. On Saturday afternoon, most of the other kids when to watch a game – Arsenal, Spurs, maybe even Chelsea. In those days Division One was the highest league, and most games were still played on a Saturday. Later we would play five-a-side deep into the evening in a building, which for want of money had a roof, but no walls, and as a result was called The Lid. I joined in under a kind of resigned sufferance.
Given the chance I played solitaire. Card after card. Hand after hand. Today, such behaviour would be labelled odd, and intervention or diagnosis would follow.
But I did not go to London for the company, the prospect of a cooked breakfast or the sport. I went to go to the Museums. South Kensington for Natural History and Science, further afield for the Imperial War Museum. It never occurred to me that I would not go to London again next year, and it never occurred to me to go anywhere but the museums.
I would be dropped off at the front door in the middle of the morning and told to be back there at a set time in the afternoon. I never remember having company. I never remember having a watch. I never remember missing the afternoon pick up. Today, such treatment of a child would be labelled odd, and intervention or prosecution would follow.
But in the years that followed something changed. And London – but not the museums – lost its pull. Somewhere along the line London shifted from being a point of interest, to being a point of departure. I went to London to catch planes to elsewhere, and said – with a confidence that was not based on experience – that I did not really like the place. That it was too big, too crowded. That it stood for the things that I did not – money, privilege, power based on might rather than right. That it was a place that sought to impose its own will over the rest of a country that did not always see eye to eye with its values and morals.
I went from enraptured wandering to arms length rejection. And now I was going back.
No amount of seat-back entertainment or foil wrapped food can soften the impact of 24 hours of economy class flying. Relaxed kids and good company help, but you still awake from what passes for sleep and think – Apocalypse Now like – “Shit, I’m still in seat 48C”. When you try to convince yourself that having only eight hours to go – a full working day – is a point of celebration, you know that the flight is long and the destination distant. I flash an “OK?” question sign at the kids and they reply in kind. Everybody is too tired to speak. Everybody just wants to arrive in London.
Even when a stranger is holding it up, the sight of your own name on a board is a welcome relief after a long trip. And one of the advantages of not having a work a day surname is that there is unlikely to be much confusion about whom the sign is for.
In a delightfully short time we are being driven away from the airport and towards Hampstead. I have no idea in what direction we are moving. I have no real idea what time it is. Many of the houses by the road look old and grey, clad in cement wash and decorated with satellite dishes. There are few green gardens, but the cars parked outside are new and shiny and expensive. Shopping trollies, stolen and lost. The scattered wreckage of take-away meals. London seems to be living up to my expectations.
I know that no city shows its best face near the airport – but there are few things more comforting than evidence for your own misconceptions.
But then things start to change. Trees. Bushes. Weedy patches with butterflies. The untidiness of neglect morphs into the chaos of the untamed. This is a complete surprise. Urban roads look like country lanes. The first of what would be many, many woodpigeons walks by the roadside, blue grey with a clergyman’s collar, and a noisy wingclap launch. The green does not last long, and soon we turn into Hampstead High Street, with its shops and traffic. But just beyond the shops and pubs, the well polished cars and white errand vans, is something I did not expect to be there. A green face in the grey. A heath for health. A place to explore. But first I need a cup of tea and some time to stand rather than sit. As ever, we look in cupboards and under beds, the kids narrowly avoid armed conflict about who gets which bed; we settle in. It’s a long time until we can go to sleep, even if my body says otherwise.
Its time to go outside.
The world through the window of the taxi from the airport had looked both familiar and strange, a confusing sensation of memory and discovery. But it was a sensation that was buffered by technology, mediated by the glass and air con. But now I was outside and everything came through unfiltered. A sound and sightscape so immediately and remarkably familiar that it was like I had been here before, even though I was a stranger.
Each little sound and sight melded together. A kind of sensory flow that was as enjoyable as it was startling. It was like tuning back in to a radio station that had been a favourite – the unchanging channel on the car radio – but one that had slowly faded over the years. Faded until all you had left was a kind of highlights reel of things that could be remembered for what they were, but not recalled for how they sounded. There were sounds that you knew you had known, but now had to be recalled. In the past they would have been head front and centre and named with certainty, so familiar that I would have known and named them without even knowing I was doing it. The kind of background check that concentrates on things that sound misplaced. Now everything sounded misplaced, everything clamoured for my attention. And strangely, it sounded quite loud. At times it had the same feeling as that “tip of the tongue” word that you are sure you know, but just won’t come. Not the cheeping of sparrows that had followed me to Australia, but the call of birds like Blue Tits and Great Tits, which I had not heard for years. The complex, silver whistles of warblers, brief and uncertain at the height of summer. I had an urge to name the sounds, to call out the bird, but I also felt restrained by the knowledge that I was not longer sure. Each call was a dilemma; a point of uncertainty that reinforced that this was only a kind of homecoming, not a complete return, and not a visit to somewhere new.
We walked away from the traffic noise of high street towards the Heath – down roads that met at strange angles and had names that probably once meant something. The network of streets and lanes was unplanned, but still strangely logical. Cut-throughs between places made sense, you could get to where you could see along roads that were probably older than the houses that lined them. The network had been walked by feet long before the words “town” and “planning” had been morphed together into a kind of urban confusion. There were street trees that may have been planted before the country I now live in gained a formal name and a debated constitution.
As I walk off the hard road and on to the softer soil of the heath I am overwhelmed by green. It felt like a sudden rush of spring, impossibly swift after the winter of Australia. Long leafy avenues stretched away from the gates, the light soft and welcoming. The edges of the paths are flecked with moss. Even the surfaces of the ponds are capped with duckweed. It’s green as far as the eye can see.
But how can this be? I am still in London. How can there be places like this in a town I knew to be nothing but grey and unfriendly? I have been home (if that is what it is) for less than four hours and already things that I had known have had to be unlearned. Things that I have held to be true have turned out to be false.
A butterfly waits, spread-winged on a thistle. A robin, cautious in the shadows, waits below a green wooden bench. A cormorant fluttering its neck, waits for the cool of the evening. I seem not to be the only one taking stock.
A jay shrieks – unmistakable even after all these years – from an oak tree. A nuthatch calls in its explosive pop. The radio station from earlier times tunes and settles. Memory unfolds. I start to find things to show the kids. The kids start to find things to show me. I still have 28 days to go. I still have a long time to remember what I thought I had forgotten.
In the darkness below a beech tree a squirrel moves from stance to stance. Rapid, fluid, comical. My kids stand and stare and, lacking all woodcraft, run after it. The squirrel takes refuge in a tree but is soon replaced by two more. Then a third. The kids move slower, the squirrels just as fast. The kids stand still and the squirrels remain. The whole family stands and watches, caught in the first day novelty. To many – maybe most – they are just despised greys, an import that has grown to the status of vermin. But they are still squirrels. They are still the epitome of distraction. We watch until they leave, rushing through the fingered undergrowth of hazel.
As the squirrels run off, my kids join then, searching of things un-Australian. I laugh at the connection between the squirrel and me. They are neither old enough to be native nor fleeting enough to be a visitor, they are a strange combination of both. I begin to understand how that feels.
The descent to the platform of Hampstead tube station is the longest and deepest in London. Once you are down there a notice tells you not to take the stairs back up, lest the 15-story climb proves too much. You don’t want to come out of the tube in a box. The tiled floors and filigree metal work speak of a time when there was a concern for both utility and aesthetics; people may have died of hunger and diseases that today would only cause slight concern, but the railways looked good.
I hum a tune. “Victorian tunnels..... moss oozes from the pores....dull echoes”. The train arrives with a rush of air, smelling of oil, stale and warm. The faces bluring in the passing windows regain a recognisable symmetry as the train slows. In the cabin people talk to their traveling companions. The single and lonely don’t speak at all; they arrive at their destination silent and unacknowledged. There is little to be seen from the windows except rippled blackness. Even though I know it’s not, the tube tunnels could be huge. We slide along, the human cargo in the barrel a transport syringe.
We arrive at our destination, are tempted by chocolate, and walk towards light. Busker music filters from an unseen part of the station, people talk on their phones: deals, arrangements, gossip. Few people know we are here; fewer people in the crowds notice us – just faces in a sea of other faces. For reasons that defy logic I expect to meet somebody I know.
While there are far fewer pigeons than I had expected, the unfinished corner of Trafalgar Square is marked with a large blue cockerel. The pigeons seem to have been replaced by crocodile lines of school kids wearing high visibility waistcoats, shepherded by collie dog teachers, snapping at the heels of stragglers, bags full of asthma puffers and medical release forms. It’s a thankless task – criticized as unadventurous by those who survived the benign neglect of former years and undervalued by those who have never sat on the hard side of the teacher’s desk. An independent soul in a porkpie hat eats his apple by a statue. Double-decker buses, black taxis, unarmed policemen. I don’t know who is seeing more that makes them smile – me or the kids. Like a million other people they climb on the lions and smile for the camera. I don’t climb, but I do smile. It’s not memory that I experience, but it feels like it ought to be. Too many pictures by other people for this to feel fully new, too many TV shows, too many icons stacked one on top of each other. To my own surprise I find that I like London. Wonders never cease.
It is hot and the flags hang limp, barely moving. A large blue fly bothers the nostril of a guard’s horse. Armed police stand by an impressive metal gate. Such a thing would go unnoticed in some places, but in the UK, machine guns on the street are still the exception rather than the rule.
We walk along straight streets, past memorials that urge us never to forget, towards the Houses of Parliament, towards the seat of a government I am glad to no longer call my own. It seems that the Mother of Parliament’s is content to neglect many of its children. I feel uninvolved in the passion that others feel, but I know full well that the same thing is happening at home, where the poor do not drive cars and the desperate are sent back out to sea in orange lifeboats. What have we all done to deserve these people?
At the end of the road the two great symbols of state watch each other across a busy round about – the Palace of Westminster and its Abbey. On one side of the road the living control the day-to-day lives of the nation, and on the other side the dead hold sway over its myths. So many of the great and the good (or maybe not) have moved from one side to the other and still manage to control the destiny of the living they have left behind. A statue of Churchill, stoop-shouldered and heavy, looks towards the tower of Big Ben. A great leader, a powerful man, a man removed from power by the will of the people, sick of war and wanting a new start; the third part of this legacy so often overlooked. Round and round the buses go, different I’m sure, but always looking the same. People wait for an election, but the buses still look the same.
We take shelter from the sun – who would have thought – in a park near the Queen’s London house. People in new suits and uncomfortable looking shoes leave by one gate while people with automatic weapons guard another. Clearly and justifiably some guests are more welcome than others.
A squirrel rushes from its hiding place in the long grass and seeks shelter in a sycamore. Comfortable in its ancestral home, it pauses its run to look at us.
The light stumbles and trips through the leaves of the sycamore tree. Maple leaves, so similar to the ones above us, are set below a sheen of flowing water. The dead of Canada – including three troopers that died in a town that almost bears my name – are remembered in a sloping memorial that some children play on. I’m not sure if this is inadvertent disrespect or an expression of the freedom that sacrifice brings. I’m saddened by the thought of the first, and wonder if this is the best place to celebrate the second.
We seem to be surrounded by power and memory; a potent mixture for sure.
The next day we head for the Museums. If memories are to be conjured anywhere it will be here, in these often visited buildings. But we enter by the back door, and nothing looks familiar. Too many renovations, too much change. But thankfully, no reduction in wonder. Even the opening displays hold me; huge crystals, ancient plants, fossils of animals so strange and otherworldly. These are traditional displays, static and rich with labels – where, when, what and why. The building blocks of knowledge and understanding, unadorned with bells and whistles. My kids stop to look as well: it must be some kind of inheritance.
Brief exploration leads to places I recall. Huge reptile dolphins, won from the rocks of Dorset by a lady in a crinoline dress, hang as panels on a corridor wall. A statue of Darwin looking out over the main entrance, where a huge dinosaur stands to challenge the myth of unchanging creation. The whole Natural History Museum really just an inventory of the way one idea can change the way we know the world. An idea that is so simple and elegant that some people still find it hard to grasp, and campaign to have it struck from the record. The truth should set us free, even if the heavens may fall as well. In slow moving crowds, surrounded by dinosaurs, in galleries packed with the unending variety of insects and in an empty space shared with the bones of humans long gone and strangely different, the connection between them and us – nature and humanity – slips away. There are human stories on both sides of the glass in this museum. I just wish more people understood why.
In the museum I meet a fellow blogger. It seems strange to recognise a stranger I have never met, but a stranger with whom I have had many Internet fractured conversations. She knows a good place for tea. Always follow local advice. That evening I meet an old school friend. It seems strange to instantly recognise a face I have not seen for half a lifetime. 25 years of stories, punctuated with pints and a bar meal. Scrabbling to catch up on things we had missed, scrabbling to restring the bonds that tie.
These are not the only, nor the least of the strange collisions that make up the days here. Prejudice against evidence. Fiction against fact. The present against the past.
We see towers packed with jewels, guarded by ravens. We straddle the line where the world divides and drink tea below a copper-bottomed tea clipper.
The days are warm, and the nights feel hot. Dawn brings slight cool breezes and the screams of swifts.
I’ve reached a kind of home and a kind of holiday. Next month seems very far away and that feels good.