London Palling – An Irishman’s Diary on my lifelong struggle to love Britain’s capital city
Buckingham Palace may be a tourist magnet, but only the architect’s mother could love it
When Samuel Johnson said that thing about the man who was tired of London being tired of life, he seemed to imply that, while the city’s appeal might wear off eventually, you couldn’t but enjoy it while young.
EM Forster, on the other hand, argued more or less the opposite. “I used to loathe London when I was young,” he wrote late in life, by which time he had learned to “love bits of it and become interested in the rest”.
Well on my first visits to London, 30-odd years ago, I failed to experience anything like Johnson’s affection for the place. On sporadic returns since, however, I have always assumed that EM Forster’s level of appreciation would set in sooner or later. Somehow, I’m still waiting. Yes, like him, I’m certainly interested in London. I just haven’t learned to love any of it yet.
Last weekend should have lit the spark. From about 5pm on Saturday, I probably saw the city at its best: bathed in the soft afterglow of an Irish rugby Grand Slam, won at Twickenham.
This should have have had a similar effect on the streetscapes as air pollution did, circa 1900, when Claude Monet was painting the place. “Without fog London would not be beautiful,” he said.
But still, somehow, the city’s beauty eluded me. For one thing, not even a Grand Slam, and the added attraction of snowfall, could soften the skyline of modern central London. A freak-show of variously-misshapen skyscrapers – the Shard, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, etc – all trying too hard to be noticed, their collective spectacle would have had Monet, a man with sensitive eyes, needing to lie down.
Much of the old architecture, meanwhile, looked as oppressive as ever. Hyde Park seemed too big and empty.
Oxford Street was a non-event. Picadilly Circus looked like a poor man’s Times Square (not that I like Times Square much either).
Even on a snowy night in Soho, to misquote a classic song, the wind was whistling all its charms, but out of tune.
Part of my problem with London is that it’s not Paris.
This is probably unfair, since the part of Paris we think of as Paris (the bit inside the Périphérique) is tiny compared with the British capital.
And London gets at least as many tourists these days.
Also, its champions are often happy to measure their city against Paris, to the latter’s detriment. So compare them I do.
Paris has its share of architectural mistakes too, not all dating from the 1960s (although, as with London in general, I’m still waiting for that alleged modernist masterpiece, the Centre Pompidou, to grow on me). But most of its grand buildings seem grander than London’s. So do the spaces around them.
No matter how many times you pass the Arc de Triomphe, for example, set on a high point at the centre of a 12-road junction, it takes your breath away (or if it doesn’t, just try dodging the traffic around it on a Velib bike, and that’ll do the trick).
And you can never walk down the Champs Elysées – preferably on the outside of the footpath where you can’t see the shops – without knowing you’re on the main street of Europe.
But in between the great buildings and spaces, Paris is replete with smaller-scale charms: a street market here, a miniature square there, corner cafés everywhere. Homicidal as its drivers may be, it’s a city for walking. And however many times I walk it, there is something new and lovely.
Whereas in London, if anything, it’s the opposite. Things that seemed vaguely impressive on first viewing do not improve with a second.
Buckingham Palace, for example. It may be a tourist magnet, but only the architect’s mother could love it.
In general, I find it a dispiriting city to be a flâneur in. And yet I’m still prepared to accept that this could be just me. Too many sane people have been charmed by London not to suspect they have a point.
It may just be that, unlike Samuel Johnson’s case, we got off to a bad start and the relationship has never recovered.
In any case, every time I go back, I am still reliving my first visit, in a grim 1980s winter, living in a squat, working on the buildings, with a less romantic Pogues song in my head: the one about wandering “the dark streets of London”.