Last week, while walking at my side struggling to stay dry from a persistent light drizzle under an inadequate umbrella, I told her what she already knew; I am too old now to be seduced again by London’s melancholy ways. A wet night had been followed by Sunday’s cool, hesitant sun casting watery shadows across pavements messily carpeted in broad autumnal leaves of orange and yellow. But this being London, and the month being November, the weather is a game of chance; you can expect rain broken by sun several times during the day. Most of the time however you must endure something in between; a damp mist on your skin, precarious leaps over wide puddles, and you think to yourself, in these gorgeously comfortable, smug old streets, even the climate lacks enthusiasm to please, possessing a lazy, arrogant indifference, so assured it is of its status, its class.
London is a city best appreciated when you approach it without purpose, enjoying the luxury of an insouciant day which we did on this occasion by meandering through Kensington’s pretty squares and lanes. Of course, they reveal hugely desirable residential Mews and Georgian Houses, a mix of formality and intimacy, all enviable beyond words, just the right level of disorder can be seen in the plants on doorsteps and in those climbing up the side of the red bricks….but then later, looking in the real estate windows became a cruel sport, a misjudgment which felt like a sharp slap in the face, spoiling the days benevolence, bringing us abruptly back to reality, a world of dollars and pounds.
Class, its privileges, flavors and malaise is never too far from my mind in London or indeed other parts of England when I am there. It’s nothing to lose sleep over, instead it’s a mild curiosity for me now, but growing up I was hyper conscious of societies boundaries and fences; social mobility was and still is something despised on that damp Island. I knew with certainty there were careers that were simply out of my grasp, such as working in the glamorous Foreign Office or one of the more interesting departments of the civil service or even joining the military which, despite what we are told, employed unabashed differentiation between the “officer” class (which implies good public schools and Oxbridge) and the common soldier. For a very brief moment I was pushed in this direction, fortunately in a casual way by my father, and so didn’t take up this path as even at that young age I saw through his machinations and conflicts and wasn’t one to blindly repeat his mistakes.
We were staying at the Gore Hotel on Queensgate. A fantasy, or perhaps more accurately, travesty of the eighteenth century with its darkly painted walls, working fireplace, comfortable floral sofa’s and deeply curtained windows. On the walls were what looked like old master paintings until closer scrutiny revealed that they were reproduced using some modern photographic sorcery, which is fine of course, we are here for the illusion and are willing participants in the fraud. Out on the street of similar mansion houses we noticed that some of the front doors had paint peeling, the windows showed signs of disrepair, the reason is seen immediately by the door bells, sometimes as many as ten installed haphazardly telling the true story of these buildings; tightly cramped spaces, kitchens composed of little more than a stove and a fridge, intransigent lives as uncommitted as the weather.
To us it is almost unimaginable for a family to inhabit such a large structure, but that was their purpose when built in the nineteenth century. In these neighborhoods first you look for the church, which was the core of any respectable community, from there you will likely see a square of large imposing houses which immediately appeal to a modern eye due to their endurance and formality with minimal external decoration other than a few modest Greek flourishes. Behind these are smaller, more modest residences backed by Mews, used for housing horses and carriages; so the social demarcations were orderly and clear, your role in society completely transparent by placement. I thought about this as I walked down these streets, which seemed to be suffering a “viral” moment, as youngish people were actively taking pictures with cell phones. Moments later I saw a disappointed estate ag1ent with a couple talking nervously behind her and could easily imagine their dilemma, how much could they afford? And obviously whether you are affronted or take comfort in all this privilege is a reflection of your world view. Most of us accept the wild, unfair distribution of wealth because we have hindsight and understand the well-intended but poor functionality of communism, but Karl Marx, who is buried not so far away, would be enraged by our complacency. For some reason these debates over societal governance seem retired now within my circle of friends, there was a time when I was young when we all felt aligned with the idea of greater social justice but as we grew older (and one way or another a little money accrued to us) we became alert to the hypocrisy of champagne socialism. Later that day in a lovely Victorian house in Barnes, many corks would pop amid encouraging laughter.
We were heading the next day to the exact opposite of Marx’s social and political experiments, the USA and New York. It is still an unsettling day for me. There is the discomfort of the long plane journey and subsequent days of jet lag on our minds, but it is also the fact you are being propelled across the planet in a way your body cannot comprehend no matter how frequently it occurs. In the hours after the flight it’s hard to believe what has just happened, starting the day in one continent and ending it in another; I feel the miraculous and heroic quality of survival, walking around our apartment in a fog of disbelief. I relish in the familiarity of home, catching the programs missed on television while Mary has been known to clean the bathroom, we have our own ways of finding comfort after a long journey. Before London and after Venice we spent a few days in Vienna, a place new to us both. It is often cited as one of the world’s most desirable cities to live in, or at least that’s what the Austrian in-flight magazine told me, and in the back of my mind I’m sure I’ve heard this before. It’s a place I arrived and left with poorly justified, and very different, prejudices. Initial impressions were hampered by a downpour and Mary’s cold which turned from bad to worse. I saw the city through rain drenched taxi windows and within the claustrophobia of a 1920’s pension’s room that held the essence of an old military hospital. She would be asleep by eight in the evening and then spend the morning in bed, bravely fighting the fever with over the counter drugs that had little impact.
On one evening we had drinks and a small dinner in the blue room of the Sacher hotel. It was exquisitely decorated and there were a handful of hushed people, depressingly all looking down into electronic devices. One exception however, was a very elderly married pair who sat and drank without once speaking all evening. This apparent mutual indifference, or perhaps the exhausted nature of their relationship, infected the room and made me uncomfortable, I felt the need to compensate by speaking a little more loudly and with more attentiveness towards Mary than necessary, as though I was giving a lesson in civics’ by my good example. Later that night the couple resurfaced in my dreams, this time verbose and shouting racial epitaphs. Lying awake in the quiet room in the early morning hours I realized how much my overly romantic expectations of this secessionist city of Mozart and Mahler, Freud and Klimt were being crushed.