I have this love/hate relationship with London. I have days when I love this city and I feel like it loves me back. Those are usually the rare days when I feel elated by the thought of the spring and summer ahead, when the transport works, when I walk through its maze of streets and feel awed by its history.
The rest of the time I think that London asks too much of me. It wants, it takes, it frustrates, it leaves me angry and exasperated. ‘Why do I continue to live here?’ I often ask myself. One book has gone some way to answering this question eloquently.
Londoners, by Craig Taylor, is as diverse as the city. The book is a series of interviews with real people, all of whom either live in England’s capital or have had a brush with it. There are interviews with a city planner, a nurse, a few taxi drivers, artists, actors, market traders, a dominatrix and even a Wiccan priestess.
The interviews are illuminating and memorable, and I came away from this book feeling like I knew London just that little bit more. There was the day I was introduced to Emma Clarke, the voice of the London Underground. I was reading her interview on the way to work on the tube, feeling tired and bleary-eyed. Suddenly I hear the familiar voice announce the next station and I realize it’s Emma, the girl I was reading about. It was a surreal moment. I can’t get on the tube without thinking of her now.
Or there was the transsexual from Balham who scavenged for food. I learned, to my great surprise, that transsexuals are obsessed with electronics, old radios, old motorcycles and old cars. A lot of them are trainspotters. Who would have thought that?
I laughed at an interview with a former Londoner, who was glad to have escaped from the city’s clutches. In him I recognized some of myself. Speaking from Cape Town, Simon says: ‘Most of my friends from university had gone to London around the same time as me, and everybody had left except for two people – they stayed and they love it there. These are two of my closest friends in the world but they are both somewhere along the autistic spectrum. What do they call it? Apserger’s Syndrome. London is a city full of Asperger’s people.’
I also loved an interview with an artist who collected human hair from the underground for a piece of art. He was talking about all this hair that collects in tube tunnels, something which I have always noticed with disgust. Immediately I am thinking of all the hair I see in the tunnel that connects the Central Line to the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus. A moment later he mentions this very same thing and I get ridiculously excited about it. It’s a moment of recognition. I was also, quite fittingly, on the tube when I read that passage.
I don’t think you need to know London well to get something from this book. Ultimately, this book is about humans living in a big cosmopolitan city. But I think Londoners will certainly get something deeper and will relate to it on another level.
I found myself talking to people about this book, mentioning the little bits of trivia I learned. You don’t have to read it all at once, but can also dip in and out of it. At 400 pages, it’s fairly dense, but I thought it read pretty quickly.
London is a city that often defies logic or understanding, but this gets close to underpinning the heart and soul of this ever-shifting and yet timeless place.
Did I fall in love with London again, like I did so many years ago as a young 22-year-old? Not exactly. But I fell in love with these stories and lives that miraculously felt both alien and familiar to mine.
I’m still not sure what I’m doing here sometimes. There are days, even weeks, when I long for something else (a bit of sun, maybe). This book did make me see the city through the eyes of others – and that has given me a new perspective on where I live, which could just get me through this very long winter.