Now that I’m very far away from it, my memories of London convince me that there’s no other place like it on earth. I tell myself I couldn’t love it that much, but then I think I do, when I realise that what I miss most about the city is not the theatre or the pubs, or the autumn sky or the part-time patriotism, but my commute into work – a brisk and sweaty walk from Archway on the messy fringes of Zone 2 to the tourist epicentre of Trafalgar Square. It’s a city small enough to walk in, where man hasn’t wiped out nature or history, and has instead built a maze of visual snapshots that are at once Victorian and Instagram, at once picture postcard and Private Eye cartoon, that kept my eyes busy, my feet guessing and my heart pounding on my hour’s power walk to the office.
I started every morning with a cup of tea that my very English husband would not have neglected to make if a bomb was about to hit our Georgian terrace roof. Getting ready to go out required minimal kinetic energy, as our flat on the middle floor of this narrow house was so snug we could hoover the whole place from a single plug in the kitchen. Running out with an apple in my hand, I zigzagged my way along the well-maintained pavement, dodging dog droppings and children escorted to school by mothers who wore sunglasses on a cloudy day a la Kate Moss, then over the hill where pot smokers would gather to watch the sun go down over the Gherkin. Archway is a resilient mixture of gentrification and social welfare, perched at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, the stage of period films and dogging groups, on the other side of its more snobbish neighbours Hampstead and Highgate. Iceland and ethnic supermarkets share postcodes with cafes that serve good coffee on mismatched furniture and gourmet pubs where “breaded whiting with pea puree” means fish ‘n’ chips.
At the bottom of the hill I avoided the broken glass and swearing teenagers outside the Irish pub, crossed the junction at Tufnell Park and waited on the corner for John, my friend and colleague who had recommended Archway to us, in much the same way that so many Londoners persuade others to move into their area by declaring Balham or Putney or Greenwich the only place to be. When John and I walked in together, hoisting rucksacks on our backs and ignoring red lights, we watched commuting cyclists cut up traffic and wondered if we had time to buy a take-out flat white, but when I was on my own I tuned into a scratchy Radio 4 on my phone and muttered back at John Humphrey’s aggressive tones.
I walked on towards Kentish Town tube station, with its Time Out and Stylist magazine distributors and the excellent kebab shop E. Mono where once after a drunken awards night my boss bought me a lamb shish. I marched past the closed down Pizza Express, Jews for Jesus, and beautiful Kelly Street with each Victorian terrace house painted a different pastel colour, then under the railway bridge and over the canal, until I came to Amy Winehouse’s Camden. A slight detour brought me to a pub that was the tragic singer’s regular, while a shortcut through the market setting up for the day took me past a stall graffitied with Amy Winehouse’s face and the words “Nobody stands in between me and my Camden.”
On through a crescent of increasingly luxurious period properties where there were no longer multiple bells on the door, and I was walking past the sign for London Zoo and along the east side of Regent’s Park. On winter mornings, the grass frosted over with a shimmering glaze, and in the summer, joggers and dog walkers made way for each other on the meandering concrete path. By this time I was pushing 9am and running late, so I zipped it down the long, long boulevard next to the park, shooting curious glances at the grand white mansions of Cumberland Terrace. Around this point the Today programme finished, and I attempted to listen to the following panel debate on religion or art. But the worsening traffic noise and my lack of genuine interest won over my desire to be culturally informed, and as I passed a fenced private garden and crossed Marylebone Road, I tuned into Capital FM for some adrenaline-pumping tunes that I didn’t recognise.
Walking beside the elegant buildings of Portland Place, housing embassies, charities and the BBC, I got an inexplicable twang of guilt when I passed the still, silent protester of Falun Gong, the spiritual practice banned in China. This road was the last of the tranquillity, because by the time I reached Oxford Circus, I was pushing through a torrent of tourists and commuters, past scaffolding and bus stops, only breaking free once I reached Regent’s Street. Later in the day, the flagship stores of major designer labels along this road blow out gusts of cold air-conditioned air from their cathedral-like interior, but at this time in the morning they were just opening, with stylishly dressed shop assistants smoking outside the heavy glass doors. As I passed Hamley’s, I sometimes spotted a coach of Chinese tourists doing a fly past, cameras pushed against the window. If I had a few minutes to spare I wandered through Soho with its quietened down sex shops, but more often than not I hotfooted it along Glasshouse Street and emerged outside Boots on Piccadilly Circus.
Now I had to concentrate, so that I’d come out on top in the game of survival against black cabs running over my toes and slippery chicken bones on the pavement left over from last night’s KFC. Leicester Square also presented obstacles, usually a giant replica of something out of a film that would premiere there later that night, and a cluster of hardcore fans loitering by the metal barriers. On the southeast corner of the square, I shot a pleading glance towards the Capital FM building to play more tunes that I know, dodged the caricature painters on the street and rushed past the National Portrait Gallery.
From there it was a few steps to my office, next to one of the two Pret a Mangers in Trafalgar Square, where we had a fine view of both the soup kitchen by St Martin’s in the Fields church, and The Harp, once voted best pub in Britain by CAMRA, Campaign for Real Ale. At lunchtime my colleagues and I usually ended up at The Harp, but until then it was off with my trainers and on with my heels, a big gulp of water from a plastic cup and the start of a quintessential London day.
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