Yesterday, at the Tate Modern, I noticed some words of Kurt Vonnegut’s from his war novel SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. They were written on a wall, just near a new graphic show, and they read: “People aren’t supposed to look back.” There’s usually a good reason why this is true, and there’s usually a good reason why it is irresistible not to (pillars of salt etc..)
My relationship with London is complicated. It’s like an old lover, a former boyfriend: you can remember the feeling of being in love, the memory of it is in your body, but you can no longer recall the exact details. All you remember is the joy and misery of it. This place sort of broke me; it was where my marriage ended and where my children spent their childhoods. It was a place I came to with such hope.
I can still see its beauty. I can still stand in my favourite bookshop in the whole world, the London Review of Books bookshop just near the British Museum in Bloomsbury, and remember exactly why I love London, its literary culture, its wide, expansive romance with its literary heritage, and how seriously some of its citizens take the beauty and meaning of books. I love the fact that Craig Raine’s feud with the TLS is a matter of interest to the bookseller at the LRB and that he knows exactly which edition of Arrete one might find a certain review. I met James Salter there once.
I love Tate Britain, too, as well as Tate Modern, but not as much as I love the National Portrait Gallery. I never forget that London is a hard city, not a million miles from Hogarth’s London, or Dickens’ London, or the rickety, poverty-struck London of my forebears, who left Southwark in the 1850s with a bag full of hope, bound for Australia. The house is still there, just beyond Waterloo Station, grim, grim, grim.
London is grim, and it is also beautiful, at once. I feel too mixed about it to offer much clarity, and everyone has their own London. The reality is that London goes on, without me, or with me, without all of us. It’s a depository of dreams and images and hopes as much as an actual place: I saw it, I grew tired, I passed through. The Thames flows on.