“But, look suppose people could be in the country in five minutes walk, and had few wants; almost no furniture for instance and no servants, and studied (the difficult) arts of enjoying life, and finding out what they really wanted: then I think one might hope civilization had really begun.”
We ended up in London again the other day. I feel it almost always happens that way: we do not plan to go to London, we do not make our day around the journey, we simply meet, after work, and are suddenly on a train speeding into the city. Maybe because of this I invariably arrive and feel I have left a part of myself back in Oxford–slower than the train, it straggles behind and tries to catch up with us as we crisscross the underground world of tunnels and subway cars and escalators that are so tall they make you dizzy, but it never quite does. So things like not being able to find a bin for my coffee cup in Paddington Station set me off on a tirade. I watch the woman on the platform while we wait for a Circle Line train with the thick blonde hair and the impeccable suit and the tall heels and the leather laptop bag. It’s a Thursday night; I picture her, young still, going home and having a bath and thinking about work and waking up and doing it all again, and before she knows it she’ll be old. She depresses me deeply; I do not envy her her life, though she looks perfectly happy and as she listens to a message on her phone her pretty lips broaden into an enormous grin. I think: poor woman.
There is always a reason to be in London; we are never there just because we are there. This time it was the launch party for the QI issue of The Idler magazine, so perhaps it was only appropriate that I did not envy the working woman (“The Idler is a bi-annual, book-shaped magazine that campaigns against the work ethic”). The invitation promised a “May Day Riot” on “London’s Clerkenwell Green”, and all we knew about the festivities is that there would be a pig roasting. I vaguely pictured a vast and lush city park, where civilized folk in elegant cocktail attire sipped champagne from plastic flutes and ate their pork with knives and forks. It had been raining heavy this morning but now things had cleared up; it was warm, even. We took the tube to Farringdon and made our way towards the Green…
…which was not, as it happens, green in the slightest. It sits on a small slope, surrounded by pubs but otherwise in what seems to be a limbo part of London, where tall bank-like buildings and underpasses and boulevards cut you off from the rest of the city. Rather than being a grassy park, the Clerkenwell Green is in fact just a concrete space in a concrete city; but on this evening it is chock full of people eating roast pork and sipping beer out of plastic cups. The pork sits smoking furiously while the guests, a number of whom are in Renaissance garb, line up with slices of white bread and then stand to the side slurping up the applesauce-and-pig sandwiches.
At first I am delighted: we go to the pub on the corner and get cider and rejoin the party, which has spilled out into the streets. The Renaissance people are playing strange instruments which made a thin, almost whiny sound, and dancing in circles near the pig. My love tries to tell me something; “Shh,” I say. “I’m having a surreal moment.”
Then it starts to drizzle, and people start leaving the Green, and the charm of it all wears off, a little. Badaude is there, wearing a chic black blazer and looking, I think, very city-cool; we stand chatting on the fringes of the Green, where the Renaissance people (Renaissance-ites? Renaissance-ers?) have produced an enormous dragon head to add to their strange, swaying little dances until she says, “can we move closer to the pig? I’m getting cold,” and I have to agree that the warmth I felt emerging from the tube has all but disappeared. My hair is getting damp and it occurs to me that the only reason I am enjoying this is because of juxtapositions: the community pig roast in one of the world’s most major cities.
So my love and I decide to try the pub where the party has, for the most part, moved on to. It is around the corner, across from a church, whose lone spire dominates the sky at this hour. It is also crowded; I mean seriously, profoundly crowded. I literally fight my way through a thicket of people, using my elbows to prevent them from collapsing in on me, but am informed by the bartender that they don’t take cards, so my cashless love and I are resigned to finding a cash point in this strange city.
We make a large, fifteen-minute circuit around the Green, which takes us all the way back to the tube stop. We find no banks, no nothing–until at long last, a lonely little cashpoint in a crumbling bit of wall which promises to charge us £1.50 for the use of its services. Desperate, we collapse upon the machine like pigs to the trough. I say, “Why is it that whatever you need in this city–an open bar, a bit of food, some cash–is never anywhere near where you are?” And he says, “I think it’s because, despite it’s size–London still has a village mentality.”
I think he couldn’t be more right. As we get back to the pub, which has, if possible, become even more densely populated, we join a crowd of people milling about outside. One of them is saying, “…and I thought, if it weren’t for the noise and the smell, we needn’t have been in London at all!”
It’s true. We could have been roasting that pig out in the sticks; we could have, except. Except for that nagging feeling of stress and doubt deep in the pit of my belly: discomfort of a strange sort. Is this how city-people feel all the time, I wonder? Is this why New Yorkers are so notoriously rude? I certainly become ruder in the city. When the Oxford Tube driver stops the coach somewhere near Notting Hill, slamming on his breaks just beside a rubbish bin on the sidewalk (must be the only one in the whole damn city, I think) and tells me that I can either throw my pasty away or wait for the next damn ride back home, because he isn’t moving another inch until that hot food is removed from his bus, because it smells bad, I get up, stand on the steps of the coach, and toss the pasty (one bite in, it hurts to throw it away) into the bin. “Oh,” I say. “You poor, poor thing.” And then I don’t even give him the courtesy of listening to his response, I am so rude. I would never do a thing like that if I wasn’t in the city. I am only rude because I the bit of me I think got left behind in Oxford in the rush was the bit of me that keeps me sane.
So London is really just a huge conglomeration of smaller areas with a village mentality. Everyone thinks their village is the only one; and everyone knows the rules of that village, but the rules change when you cross lines. It oughtn’t have seemed incongruous at all, that illicit city pig-roast, those strange Renaissance dancers (who set up shop outside the pub and played tunes standing atop wooden crates), the lack of anything necessary, like a cashpoint near a pub that takes nothing but cash. Upstairs in the pub, as the crowd thins out, we sit and say that we are so glad we are struggling with our money because we are happier that way; we say it, and it’s true. I’d rather the uncertainty than be that woman on the platform looking all smoothed out and prim, who knows the rhythm of her life so well that it has ceased to sound interesting–I’d rather the civility of enjoying life and finding out what I really want.