I write awfully lot about myself when I attempt to write about London. There is an assumption that this kind of self-omission is all too often self-indulgent. My few readers are better judge of that than I am. However, writing from my own perspective is a conscious choice because I find the alternatives, repeating some educated generalities or social criticism, disagreeable and uninteresting; I think it is complacent to not be aware of oneself and to state one’s experiences and observations as facts.
Recently, on one of these London Archive wandering trips in West London, I took the southbound 328 bus from Notting Hill. I used to take this bus almost daily when I lived in a tiny bed bug-infested bedsit in Earl’s Court and worked on Westbourne Grove. I have had many lives in London and the time I lived by a busy road going through Earl’s Court, one of the small veins of London, belongs to the third. My first era is marked, despite moving five times, by the bus route 52 which I took to Notting Hill from Kensal Rise. I now hopped on bus 328, of the third era, from the same bus stop I got off from the bus route of my first era, route 52.
For all the glamour that Notting Hill evokes, the immediate surroundings of Notting Hill Gate underground station are an eye-sore. So I thought in the months I commuted through it and so I thought again now, as a visitor. The bus went on, stopped at traffic lights and at bus stops. I looked around, observed what had changed and what hadn’t, and remembered, without thinking, my life around there with muted feelings.
The destination of the 328 bus was The World’s End. I went there once, in the days before being able to find out about the history or the look of a place on my mobile. I can’t remember if I went there on purpose (I was intrigued by the name already then) or by mistake but I do remember being unimpressed and perplexed when I got there. I know more now and am more appreciative of historical remnants, even only present in a name.
Many years later I read Anita Brookner’s first novel ‘A start in life’ in which the heroine lives at the World’s End. I remembered the first lines of the novel, ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature’, as the bus went along. Somewhere on the left I spotted, I think, the road on which G.K. Chesterton, another literary hero of mine, lived. We found the blue plaque with my sister on one of our expeditions.
The London that seeps through Brookner’s novels is rather dull, perhaps because her characters seem settled in it in a way that is enviable. It is not the cosmopolitan, vibrant city that I have been told of and it is not the unattainable dream of a life that I and many others know it to be. Brookner’s London, in my mind’s eye, reminds me of the slightly flat, painterly quality of TV series and films made in the 90’s, comforting, like the cup of tea with milk seems to be to its everyday drinkers.
'A start in life’ was the second book I read by Brookner. The first was ‘Hotel du Lac’ which I picked it up on a whim, as purchases of this kind tend to happen, at the Waterstones in Greenwich and took it with me on my holiday in the South of France. It is a short novel but I read it slowly. I had to. Her writing was a revelation in its poignancy and simplicity. In her all white, all middleclass milieu Brookner writes about overbearing friendships, childish parents and other strong characters that I too have met sometime in my life. In her novels I found a narrator that I felt would understand the understated tragedies of my own life. I identified with her heroines with a feeling of relief, even triumph. After reading a few other novels by her that feeling however changed to a sad recognition. Her heroines tend to be intelligent women who are quietly disappointed in life and unfortunate in love. Her novels don’t end in redemption but in a way that is terrifyingly realistic.
I decided that Brookner’s London was best to be left ambiguous and instead of going to the World’s End, I got off just after Earl’s Court station and walked to the Old Brompton Cemetery. I found only one photograph in there despite its symmetrical layout and started to make my way back to Notting Hill, for lunch at the Churchill Arms.
Which one comes first, the awareness of the architecture of the society or the enjoyment of my surroundings in which I am merely a visitor? When does the sadness about the current political and socio-economic situation appear or does that curious kind of daydreaming, present when I wander about London, merely bring an escape from that state of frustration? And at what point do I remember my own place in the hierarchy of the British society and the high moral position I am expected, as an educated liberal socialist, to take?
I wonder and continue to wander.
© Carita Silander