A love letter to London by Raven Smith
Author of a Sunday Times bestseller and a Vogue columnist, London writer Raven Smith has a serious passion for his home town. He tells High Life why the metropolis is so alluring, and why his love for it has only increased during the pandemic
I don’t want to be one of those writers who can’t get through a piece without mentioning the pandemic but, like the moon landing, it really did happen. As the world unlocks again, as we ricochet down travel corridors and back out across the globe, let us reflect without despair. OK, maybe lockdown saw me never quite fully dressed, moving from room to room, the seat of my trousers threadbare, pretending my camera wasn’t working if anyone Zoomed me. My personal indoorsy continuum, walled in by bricks of banana bread, left me grieving for my jet-set ways. I say jet set, but glamour wasn’t all I craved. I think of myself as vaguely intrepid, sniffing out new places and new experiences, as rugged and adventurous and swashbuckling as you can imagine, as long as there’s a mint on my pillow and a hot shower. I was a man of the world, the kind of chap with a resourceful Swiss Army energy and a jacket with pockets big enough for a packed lunch lest hunger strike.
Stranded on terra firma as my intrepid spirit dwindled, I found fresh affinity with my current surroundings. Though it was initially my captor and my prison, I fell in love with London again. Can you get Stockholm syndrome if you’re not in Stockholm? Despite nightly dreams of high seas, night trains and tropical beaches (everybody loves the beach, end of), my beloved home town, my grubby metropolis on the Thames, grew on me like a familiar fungus – the medicinal type that makes penicillin. It wasn’t an epiphany, nor a message from God with a choir of angels. It was a reminder. Sorry to sound like Dorothy in Oz, all red slippers and gingham, but there’s no place like London.
London can be both brittle and softly welcoming: grey and smoky, or as unapologetically joyous as an eight-year-old girl’s birthday party
It’s tricky to describe London without falling into naffness, into cliché, a romcom haze rose-tinting everything. There are so many London things that feel distinctly London. Yes, we have cobbled Dick Whittington streets (more likely paved with vomit than gold in particular boroughs). You can cross London Bridge, cheeks flushed like Bridget Jones as the snow swirls. You can forehand strawberries on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in a July heatwave. There’s Hampstead ponds, whose damp patrons look as if they’ve been inked by Quentin Blake. There’s Notting Hill Carnival and sound systems that shake your chest. There’s the giant half moon of St Paul’s (seen in the opening skyline image) and the towering Big Ben. There’s that ski lift over the river for the Olympics.
There are snaking queues for new no-reservation it-restaurants; self-service checkouts on the way to the park; scalloped booths where suited waiters come at you with those blades that deftly scrape up table scraps. After fingers of cucumber sandwich, you can fall into the best sleep of your life at Claridge’s. And there are clubs that smell of metal for those of Duracell bunny stamina.
London does offer that Instagram reality, all wellness shakes and cross-body nourishment, the must-see tourist traps, obligatory stops on any agenda. But there’s also its grit, which sounds quite Oliver Twist and is harder to find in the guide books. Mary Poppins told us that there’s a woman somewhere feeding birds who just wants a chat, but you could just as easily meet a gang of hipsters who travel from city to city solving mysteries. You can lose yourself for the night.
London can be both brittle and softly welcoming: grey and smoky and as wet as a walked dog, or as unapologetically joyous as an eight-year-old girl’s birthday-party vision board. There’s always somewhere open for jerk chicken or Victoria sponge, Champagne or Red Stripe. One of the best nights of my life saw me disappear several Cosmopolitans at The Shard long before dinnertime, followed by the most exhilarating elevator descent of my life.
The thing is, you see, there’s no definitive London, no single bit of architecture nor any event that defines it. London in itself is a series of ever-happening moments, a multitude of instantaneous instants. It’s the alchemy of the city that brings it to life. Lots of cities do this – they’re concoctions of elements, equations that shouldn’t add up but do, potions that cast a spell. As they say, Paris is for lovers. And Rome wasn’t built in a day. Athens is for muscly Adonises and girthy columns.
I miss seeing the world. I miss lugging my luggage. I miss the overhead scuffle. I miss strangers on a train and local dialects and fridges that magically refill while you’re out for the day. I miss travel. I miss travelling. I miss leaving here, and getting there. I miss the sudden hit of heat as you step off the plane. I even miss snail-pacing through security, my life divided into 100ml portions. All of these will be back. Before you know it, I’ll be moaning about the queues and double-checking for my passport. In the meantime: London.
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