Stevie Wonder once wrote a line in a song; ‘Living just enough, just enough, for the city.‘ I think I know what he was on about; at least it resonated with me, and made solid a thought long held in my mind.
When you live in a city, to a large extent you do provide for it, help to feed its needs, and by doing so, become used up, and eventually discarded. Cities don’t need individuals, and replace them quickly once they are gone. To a city, the loss of one inhabitant is of no more importance than the loss of a single termite to a colony. Think about it long enough, and you will realise that if you believe a city is there to provide you with your needs, whether they be employment, recreational, or residential, in reality, the reverse is true. You do what you do for the benefit of the metropolis, even if you do not choose to accept this fact. City living feels like survival. When someone gets home from a day’s work, they shut the doors, close out the noise, and relax. Inside, they feel that they have survived this great thing for one more day. Tomorrow is a fresh start. Living anywhere else is just beyond compare.
City life has its own pace. Often frenetic, and at the very least one pace quicker than anywhere else, and with that comes the need to compete. This competition can be for parking spaces, table reservations, theatre seats, the best view, or the latest thing. It can also be to just get through a day, to survive once again, to be able to get some sleep. If you live this city life, it is best not to think about it too much. The sense of your personal insignificance can be overwhelming, and the future stretches out in front of you, looking completely pointless. Cities seem to evolve and develop at a faster pace than the people that live in them. Modern London would look incredibly different to someone who lived there in the 14th century, yet the present day inhabitants of this city have much in common with their ancestors. Take away the electronic toys, the cars, trains and planes, and you have people who are essentially unchanged.
Their worries are surprisingly similar. Getting work, having enough to eat, meeting a partner, looking after their children. Read any stories of London life over the centuries, and you could put them into almost any time period. ( First removing the references to The Plague, of course) The diaries of Samuel Pepys give a fascinating account of life in London in the 17th century. What makes them more interesting to me, is that they show how little things have changed since then, at least in the everyday lives of the people. Living in a city defines your character, and to some extent, your personality as well. Despite my move to rural Norfolk, I am immediately recognised as a ‘city person’, by anyone who has ever lived in one, and equally by those who have not.
So why am I writing a post about city life today? Last weekend, I missed London. It was only fleeting, but nonetheless a tangible miss. I watched a few minutes of the TV coverage of the London Marathon, and it all came flooding back; wafting over me like the smell of a familiar perfume, or the feel of an old shirt, that always fits ‘just right’.
There is little to compare with a spruced up London on a sunny day. Devoid of traffic, grand buildings of Portland stone shining, and the River Thames glistening, it really is quite magnificent. The sweeping vistas, the dramatic bridges and landmarks, and the riverside developments lining both banks. To me, it all screams ‘home’.
I am not a fan of sports generally, and I have to say that I find the Marathon somewhat pointless. When I lived in London, I regarded the whole thing as a massive annual inconvenience, that served little purpose, other than to promote the various companies that sponsored different parts of it. However, I did have one connection with it that was positive. When I moved to a house in Rotherhithe, it fronted the main road. Except for a purely ornamental front garden, and a grassed walkway, it was actually a few feet from the road itself, which was also part of the Marathon route. One of our friends was living in Kent, and she was a fan of the race. She asked if her and her partner could come up, as we could afford them a literal front row seat. They came up on the Saturday, and we all had a meal, and copious amounts of alcohol too. The next morning, after a hearty breakfast to banish hangovers, we put on the TV, and waited for the race to start at Blackheath, a few miles to the East. We placed chairs on the walkway outside, and checked with the TV coverage, for the moment when they made the turn into our road, from Surrey Docks Station. Taking position, we soon saw the leading runners go pounding by, followed by wheelchair competitors, going surprisingly fast. We had to take cover occasionally, as the flying plastic water bottles thrown by the runners, would come at us from all angles.
There was then a significant lull in proceedings, as the next large groups of runners would take some time to appear. There was time for refills of tea and coffee, or buck’s fizz. After this large group had gone past, the fun runners would appear. They would be wearing various costumes, some of which were very intricate, and also looked very uncomfortable. Of course, not everyone can compete at a similar pace, and it was not unknown for some of the less experienced, or disabled, to still be passing by late into the evening. First aid coaches went slowly by, and we could see the forlorn expressions of those inside, the runners who had already dropped out after a few miles. Some were carrying collecting buckets for charities, and we sometimes threw in a couple of pounds, for those that had meaning to us. Following on, there was a small army of cleaners, picking up all the water bottles, and other rubbish discarded by the entrants. By the time the road was re-opened, it was hard to tell that anything had happened, were it not for the few stragglers, still making their way to The Mall.
After it was all over, we would cook an early lunch, later bidding farewell to our guests. This happened only three times, as I split with my wife, and the house was sold. Those Marathon party weekends remain a fond memory now, one of heavy drinking and laughter, followed by our ritual viewing of this massive event. Although it was only once a year, for three short years, it holds considerable significance in my recollections.
There I was in Norfolk, misty-eyed in reverie, enjoying a view of London denied me when I lived there; an aerial feast for the eyes, of a city that had benefited from a good wash and brush up. I did miss it. I envied those walking on the South Bank, or strolling around the base of Tower Bridge. But inside I knew that this wasn’t my London, the city of noise, rubbish, dirt, and hard work. This was London ready for a night out, in its best clothes, freshly washed, and looking its best.
So I didn’t miss it a lot. A bit though.