Tired Of London
A supposedly fun place I’ll never go again
It was two o’clock in the morning.
No good ideas come to you at two o’clock in the morning. Lying there wide awake in the darkness of a too-small, too-expensive hotel room, my circadian rhythm torn to shreds by a long flight and a fugitive sun, I found myself wondering if I even enjoy travel any more. Who would, when it looks like this?
Old injuries pile up. The shoulder that never gets better. The back that I damaged moving fridges in my early twenties and will never fully heal. And there are other wounds too, more painful to endure and to talk about. “It’s easy,” said Leonard Cohen, “to display a scar. It’s harder to show a pimple.”
I’ve never loved London. And as I lay awake in the darkness and listened to the rain pelting the window as another black-browed storm settled on the island of my birth, I spent my time in a crystallization of hatred for everything this city has to offer.
The crowds here would step over you and pretend not to notice if you fell. The garbage and the filth pile up behind iron railings, pierced by runways for fat and sleek-furred rats that don’t mind the rain.
Capital cities are often unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Rome is nothing like Milan or Palermo, and Paris doesn’t look much like Lyon or Toulouse.
London isn’t England. It’s more like some city-state of the future that just coincidentally happens to be surrounded by another nation. Monaco without the ocean. The Vatican without the sunshine.
And it’s the high priests of profit and power that rule here, that glide through the glistening streets in purring black cars while tourists hunch over their phone to keep the rain away while they look for directions.
In the big cities of the twenty-first century, foreignness is becoming the bedrock reality of life.
No one speaks the same language. And no meaningful connection can be formed by people who can’t understand each other. It’s already too easy to see people as things, to yell at the moron blocking a door because he’s slowing you down, as though his life and time aren’t every bit as important as yours. Individuals become, if not actual enemies, then at least insensate obstacles. Something to be gotten around or trampled over.
I’ve seen this in Vancouver, where a rising tide of Asian money continues to push house prices into the stratosphere. I’ve seen it in Rome, where English becomes more useful than Italian in navigating the grimy streets around the train station.
But I’ve never seen it anywhere as fully and completely as I do in London. The capital of the United Kingdom, for as long as that institution exists, seems to have almost nothing to do with the rest of the increasingly separate nations it rules over. London only looks inwards, while foreign money pours in with the rain and the towers climb higher and higher.
But my wife isn’t English. And for her, London still somehow manages to retain some of the appeal it has for people who don’t know it. Even though she’s been to this rain-rotted city before. Even though she should know better.
So against my better judgment, we found ourselves in London again.
Everything is here.
I’ll say that for it. No matter what you’re into, you can find it — or some passable imitation of it — in London. Over 250 languages are spoken in the city — more than any other on the planet. Just about every cuisine and culture have their enclave here, and you could, in theory, travel the world by walking down a single London street.
And of course, London doesn’t lack for British cultural treasures either. This isn’t a North American capital, like dreary Ottawa or plastic DC. In European cities, money and culture orbit the halls of power, so that legal and financial capitals end up being cultural too. If you’re a fan of musical theater, you’ll probably love London. But I’m not, and I don’t.
Having been the capital of a vast and far-flung Empire, London remains the home of all kinds of purloined and looted treasures. The British Museum still has the marble statues taken from the Parthenon, despite the protests of Christopher Hitchens and ten million Greeks.
It’s tempting to draw a line that follows Western civilization from one home city to another, beginning in Athens and moving westward to Rome, then to Paris, stopping for a long while in London before gathering strength to leap across the Atlantic. A lot of marble fragments and gold dust fell off along the way and stayed in London.
But we couldn’t get into the museum. It’s free, and the weather was bad. The line stretched all the way down the street.
We’ve seen the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey.
We’ve done the Tower and the Bridge. And in the wet wind that flung dripping garbage through the dormant parks, the only thing I could think to do was retreat to the pub and watch the football.
So that’s what we did. Which is, at least, an authentic experience of English culture. Although not necessarily of London.
England hasn’t been my country for a long time now, and it seems to get less so with every year. But even when I did live there, London was a world to itself. It was somewhere we went to see bands play, tracking down the Brixton Academy on paper maps back before phones had the Internet.
This was never my city. As much I hated my hometown, as much as I dreamed of leaving it and going somewhere, anywhere, I never really considered London as an option.
Part of the magic of travel is that everybody has different experiences, even when they go to the same places.
My love of Rome isn’t difficult to justify, but I’ve met plenty of people who can’t stand the place. My abiding passion for Naples often meets even more incredulity than my ambivalence toward Barcelona. I have friends who don’t care for Paris at all.
So maybe it’s better if I never go to London again. Leave it for those who might actually enjoy it. Maybe that’s you.
But personally, I love sunlight and open squares and ancient temples and romance languages. I like the pull of the new, the bend in the alley that brings you to some courtyard or statue you’ve never seen before.
When one is tired of London, the old saying goes, one is tired of life. But if life looks like this — a low gray sky bleeding rain, immovable traffic, every scrap of property commandeered by Arab royalty and Russian billionaires — then I respectfully return the ticket.
About the Creator
Towers, Temples, Palaces: Essays From Europe out now!
Novelist, entomologist and cat owner. Ryan Frawley is the author of many articles and stories and one novel, Scar, available from online bookstores everywhere.
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