josh rosner

SOME THOUGHTS ON … LONDON

In Great Britain on December 6, 2012 at 3:17 am

Having recently returned from Europe, I feel compelled to put finger to wireless keyboard and record some thoughts on the three main cities I visited: London, Paris and Berlin. Each city is well-known to me; in fact, I have lived for extended periods of time in two of them.

Let’s begin with London, a city I moved to while still a teenager. It was the perfect city for me: I was lost, nerdy and insecure. Not ready for university, I was completely adrift. Back then, twenty years ago now, London was a dirty city inhabitant by folk who rarely smiled and never had a friendly word to say. Londoners lived constantly with the spectre of IRA bombings to such an extent that barely did I venture onto the Underground without major disruptions. Twenty years later, the IRA threat has dissolved, but the Underground remains a dirty, grafitti-covered shambles.

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The kind of weather England is famous for

Samuel Johnson once said of London, “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” That is certainly one view of London. Perhaps it was even true in Johnson’s day – a time when the population of London was a mere 500,000 and the only way to cross the Thames was over London Bridge, at least until Westminster Bridge was opened in 1750. It was also a time when public hangings constituted mass entertainment. Perhaps he was wrong about London after all.

I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining,” said Groucho Marx. The English weather has provided fodder for comedians the world over, but the constant dampness in the air, the lack of anything resembling a real summer and the perpetual drizzle were my main complaints. I’m by no means a warm weather person, despite growing up sailing, swimming and boating on a coastal lake, but the constant dreariness the epitomises English weather challenges the constitution of even the most robust character.

Although jobs were easy to come by for an Australian back in the day – nothing has changed there – the pay was barely enough to live on. Nothing has changed there, either. I still marvel at the ability of London families to survive on incomes less than my accumulated annual medical expenses.

Although I’ve returned to London many times – almost annually – since I left it permanently in the early 1990s, it is a city that has never found a place in my heart. I certainly have fond memories of the couple of years I lived there, don’t get me wrong, but they tend to centre around people and events rather than any redeeming qualities of the city itself.

Kind George VI was far more optimistic about London, commenting at the end of the Second World War, “It is not the walls that make the city, but the people who live within them. The walls of London may be battered, but the spirit of the Londoner stands resolute and undismayed.” Although this has not been my own experience of the city or its inhabitants, elements of king George’s sentiment could be found after the Olympics. London seem imbued with a renewed vigour and a sense of self-worth that had been lacking previously. It was pleasant and acceptable.

Some of the Isle of Lewis (pronounced Lew-es) chess pieces at the British Museum.

Some of the Isle of Lewis (pronounced Lew-es) chess pieces at the British Museum.

Despite my animosity, London presented a few small surprises on this trip that were definitely welcome. I’m a great fan of chess and it was exciting to be able to see, for the first time, the Isle of Lewis chess pieces housed in the British Museum. I confess to a tear in my eye when I laid eyes on Jack Kerouac’s original scroll of ‘On the Road‘, on tour at the British Library. And finally, running into Boris Johnson purely by chance on the Underground proved a highlight, as well.

London will never be the city where I leave my heart, pining over it, desperate to return. Another European city – which I will come to in a later post – has that distinction. But London will continue to be a city I return to over and over. Maybe one day it will even come to mean more to me.

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