London is a big place: 606 square miles with something like nine million inhabitants. And London is experienced and perceived in many different ways, both by Londoners and non-Londoners. In advance of the Queen’s funeral, some thought that today, a special bank holiday Monday, would be like the English Sundays of decades back, when everything was shut except the churches and, except for a couple of hours, the pubs. Well, it has been and it hasn’t.
My local corner shop was open this morning for coffee and croissants as usual, thank God. Although the Tesco Express didn’t open until 5pm, staff were in there early, accepting deliveries and stacking shelves. On Hackney Downs, a frail man in a wheelchair reversed towards the bench he clambers on to, and my slow run took my past, as it so often does, two women walking and talking in an east European language I can’t identify.
That is the London I mostly inhabit. And as someone unexcited by either royals or republicanism, I’ve felt fairly detached from the passing of the Queen and what has followed, including today’s ceremony at Westminster Abbey and all that has gone with it – the ritual and processions, the crowds in Hyde Park (photo above, grabbed from the BBC) and the central London streets. That said, the strangeness of the past ten days and the national focus on the city has provided food for thought about its wonders and variety, and the ways in which it is seen.
The capital is not for moving. The latest renaissance of anti-London feeling has produced sporadic calls for somewhere else to be called the UK capital, as that would lead to “levelling up” and cut London down to size. The two goals are contradictory – even the new Prime Minister has noticed. The temples and ceremonies of the monarchy are part of what makes London so big and so important to the whole country. The Queen’s passing has underlined that London is irreplaceable as the nation’s capital.
The Thames is forever ever-changing. It’s been an avenue of colonisation and global commerce. It has teemed with fish – flounders, pikes, eels, salmon and tenches “all caught in nets with baits of cheese and tallow”, according to a 15th Century account quoted by Peter Ackroyd – and later been lined with docks and rendered rank with sewage. In September 2022 it served a different purpose – defining the line of The Queue, which mesmerised some like slow TV.
Cockney legend. When Leytonstone-born David Beckham was a famous footballer he made some people cross: he was judged foppish, girlish, too keen on clothes and celebrity. But perhaps he was just a new link in the long chain of London dandies. And when he was spotted and interviewed in The Queue, shuffling his way to Westminster Hall from Southwark Park with normal folk, far from perturbing gatekeepers of English manliness, he fitted neatly into one of their templates, professing his royalism, being an ordinary bloke and speaking in his estuary accent of heritage boiled sweets. Suddenly, he was more Blitz spirit than Simeone’s dupe. He even wore a flat cap.
Ghosts of London past. The tumult drew me twice to the centre of town: once on the Friday morning after the evening before and once yesterday, to lurk and spy from Southwark Bridge. The city’s history hits you like an avalanche, an engulfing archive of references and memory prompts, tailored like an algorithm to experience and taste. Walking on the Thames Path and across London Bridge and Southwark Bridge, all sorts of people and things popped into my head: Michael Caine; The Lambeth Boys; The Pool of London; All That Mighty Heart.
So that was my great mourning. Though not much drawn in by the grieving, Elizabeth’s long farewell provided time and space to think about the city. There’s much more thinking to be done, and a need for action too. Summer is behind us, and there is much bleakness to come.
Image from BBC News.
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