Over the past couple of years, I’ve gradually been falling out of love with London.
City life, and London especially, offers a treasure-trove of experiences. Its rich history, culture and melting pot of global visitors makes it enriching for some – for most. But it possibly also has a time limit, an expiration date.
When I first started travelling to places with significantly more living space (i.e. anywhere but England really), I was uncomfortable with how far apart everything and everyone seemed. The cosmopolitan, bustling Sydney – Darling Harbour, early-ish Saturday morning – was a comparable ghost town compared to an equivalent spot in London. Kind of unnerving, when you’re used to the packed out West End, or tourist-laden South Bank.
But over time, I’ve come to crave: space. Living with a South African, and seeing London through the eyes of a nation with a plethora of just that, I’ve started to see our city for the over-crowded, sometimes-claustrophobic life it offers. And it’s troubling. Travelling the same journey to work each day, accompanied in too-close quarters by the same crowds of commuters, evokes a drone-like automaton existence that is in some way deeply sad.
Fitzgerald captures this like no one else I’ve found. Outlining a vision of New York that could double in every way for London-living, Amory Blaine shares the following scene in This Side of Paradise as he stands on the pavement in the early evening, watching the post-matinee crowds take to the rain-soaked streets:
“He stood aside, edged a little into the rain to let the throng pass. A small boy rushed out, sniffed in the damp, fresh air and turned up the collar of his coat; came three or four couples in a great hurry; came a further scattering of people whose eyes as they emerged glanced invariably, first at the wet street, then at the rain-filled air, finally at the dismal sky; last a dense, strolling mass that depressed him with its heavy odour compounded of the tobacco smell of the men and the fetid sensuousness of stale powder on women. After the thick crowd came another scattering; a stray half-dozen; a man on crutches; finally the rattling bang of folding seats inside announced that the ushers were at work.
“New York seemed not so much awakening as turning over in its bed. Pallid men rushed by, pinching together their coat-collars, a great swarm of tired, magpie girls from a department-store crowded along with shrieks of strident laughter, three to an umbrella; a squad of marching policeman passed, already miraculously protected by oilskin capes.
“The rain gave Amory a feeling of detachment, and the numerous unpleasant aspects of city life without money occurred to him in threatening procession. There was the ghastly, stinking crush of the subway – the car cards thrusting themselves at one, leering out like dull bores who grab your arm with another story; the querulous worry as to whether someone isn’t leaning on you; a man deciding not to give his seat to a woman, hating her for it; the woman hating him for not doing it; at worst a squalid phantasmagoria of breath, and old cloth on human bodies and the smells of the food men ate – at best just people – too hot or too cold, tired, worried.
“He pictured the rooms where these people lived – where the patterns of the blistered wallpapers were heavy reiterated sunflowers on green and yellow backgrounds, where there were tin bathtubs and gloomy hallways and verdureless, unnameable spaces in the back of the buildings; where even love dressed as seduction – a sordid murder around the corner, illicit motherhood in the flat above. And always there was the economical stuffiness of indoor winter, and the long summers, nightmares of perspiration between sticky enveloping walls… dirty restaurants where careless, tired people helped themselves to sugar with their own used coffee-spoons, leaving hard brown deposits in the bowl.”
Where Amory uses these observations to comment on a dislike of impoverished life – the trappings of the financially poor as he sees it – perhaps we could read this as a different type of poverty. Not lacking of financial riches, but a richness of life.