“The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty five miles long and twenty miles wide; my city is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is no more than about seven miles from any other. On the south it is bounded by the river, on the north by the fat tongue of Hampstead Heath and Highgate Village, on the west by Brompton Cemetery and on the east by Liverpool Street station. I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do I feel like I’m in foreign territory…It is the visitor who goes everywhere; to the resident, a river or railway track, even if it is bridged every few hundred yards, may be as absolute a boundary as a snakepit or ocean.”
Jonathan Raban, Soft City (1974)
A bloke at work asked me recently if I’d been to Abbey Road to see the famous zebra crossing and was really shocked when I said I hadn’t. He assumed that, being a Londoner, I must have.
Besides the fact that I would never act like a sight-seeing tourist in the city I grew up in*, Abbey Road is in NW8 which might as well be Mars to this boy from Fulham SW6 who rarely ventured to the north of the city. To me, Camden was a foreign land I only ever visited to go to the Electric Ballroom. My London — the city I knew and was comfortable in — was bordered on the north by the Westway, went as far east as Holborn, out west to Hammersmith, from there south of the river to Barnes, and then east on that side of the Thames as far as Wandsworth.
If it was a Tube map it would look like this:
Though I have lived and worked in some of them at various times, the areas beyond these borders might as well have a Here Be Dragons sign on them – or at least Here Be Media Luvvies (North London) and Here Be Pub Fights (SE London) — for all I know about them, or care to. Visiting friends who lived outside my comfort zone I often didn’t feel like I was still in London even though the A-Z said I was — I mean, where the bloody hell is Stoke Newington? It’s doubly uncomfortable feeling like a stranger in your own home city, and you don’t ever want the shame of someone thinking you’re a tourist or out-of-towner by asking for directions or looking at a map.
Every Londoner will have their own version of the city like this (just as there are New Yorkers who never go uptown or downtown) because it’s just too big for one person to feel at home everywhere. I remember several times falling asleep drunk on a night bus and waking up in unfamiliar territory near the end of the route. You quickly get off the bus in a panic — where the fuck am I? — and start walking (or staggering) back in what you think is the right direction. Then, in the distance, you see a building or road that you know and immediately your spirit lifts and your pace quickens. You’ve crossed the border into your London and everything is going to be all right.
Download: London Town – Light of The World (mp3)
Pretty sure I posted this song before a few years ago but what the hell, it’s worth doing again. Think this might be my all-time favourite London record, and there’s been some good ones.
*I have also never been inside Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, or The Tower of London.