In some ways it was the first place I ever knew. Seventeen, sick and living in a box-room belonging to an octogenarian friend of the family, every day once I was just about well enough not to have to sleep in hospital overnight I would wake up at five and tiptoe down the street and go underground. I’ve always thought of the London Underground as not quite of this world. It has its own newspapers and its own weather, its strange warm winds blowing from tunnels deep in the groaning belly of the city. Step out of the tube and you are older, by twenty minutes or a whole lifetime; you are different; you have left something of your old self, your anxious, night-time, dreaming self down in the racket and thunder of the trains and the harsh bright never-dawn of rolling rubbish and advertising hoardings.
I was born in London, and though my family moved away when I was small, I grew up longing for the city. Some of us do. The rabbit-bitten fields and sun-kissed cycle paths that my parents were so thrilled for their daughters to grow up with held no interest for me. I wanted the smell of diesel and the rain throwing up soot on the pavements. I wanted lights that never went out and streets to swagger down. I went to sleep in the owl-hooting dark, dreaming of the syphilitic rattle of urban pigeons.
More than anything, I wanted the tube. Every time we went to London for a visit, I could happily have ridden the underground all day. I wanted to lose myself in the dark and mouse-running scramble of crammed-together humanity and come up again in the light. I liked being one of the sardine people, even in rush hour, even at my height, which was and remains about armpit height on the average commuter. Late at night, the platforms echo with the memory of thousands of city dwellers huddled together for shelter with the bombs of the Blitz overhead. Catching the last Bakerloo line home, you can almost see them, out of the corner of your eye, through the cracks in history: propped against one another, mindlessly tired.
The tube is London’s psychic sewer system. The somatic debris of life in a late capitalist megatropolis drifts through and drains away here down tunnels garish with adverts for car insurance and cosmetic surgery. Knackered commuters grip their seats or cling to the upright poles, avoiding one another’s eyes. And yet it’s also the one place in the whole county where the power of organised labour can and does bring a city juddering to a halt on a regular basis, the one place where workers, by and large, expect to be treated like dignified human beings. Tube strikes are as regular and marvellous and irritating as the yearly snowfall which turns London into a hushed, glittering white fairyland of treacherous ice and broken transport links and adults freaking out like excited toddlers, turning up their faces to catch the fat flakes before they soak into the grime.
London is a place of contradictions.
The process of living here is one big game of unseeing. I have not visited another world city where different lives mesh and interweave so intricately without ever touching, rich and poor. In China Mieville’s novel ‘The City and The City,’ two cities occupy the same physical space, and citizens must avoid ‘breaching’ the psychic gap at all costs. When the book came out in 2010, there was much speculation as to what city it was supposed to represent – Belfast? Jerusalem? Berlin as was? – but for me it’s clearly about London, consciously or unconsciously, the city of parts which breaks into all of Mieville’s work, as it does with any writer who lives here for very long.
London is more than two cities. It is many cities. It is the city and the city and the city and the city, a delicate, dirty palimpsest of history layered on history. A city where kids with hoods and hopeless eyes can start burning police cars and looting the high streets and the question on the lips of the broadsheet writers and politicians who live and work a few streets away can still be: where the hell did these people come from?
They come from London, just like you.
I have been in love with this city all my life, and it has taken me on marvellous adventures and it has come close to crushing me. No lover has ever betrayed me like London. Being poor and homeless and despairing here is not like being poor and homeless and despairing anywhere else. I have seen this city swallow friends whole, chew down its young for the meat and life under the skin and spit them out old and traumatised. London does this. You plonk your youth like an offering on the steps of Liverpool Street Station and you just have to hope the city will leave you a life worth living as it slurps up the marrow of your dreams. I will never forgive it. I will never stop loving it.
But it’s all got a bit much lately, what with the total policing and the hysterical run-up to the Olympics. I need a break, and I’m fucked if I’m going to the country. London and I need some time apart. I’ve saved up some money and I’m leaving today tooff to see other cities for a while, starting with New York, which is a great floozie of a town with a far inferior subway system. But I’ll be back, because it’ll take more than godawful tea and all-night cupcake shops to make me forget where I come from. I come from the best city in the world ever. I come from London.