August 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
In my tour of my previous homes in London last year, I left one out: the first. The student house in Bloomsbury where I passed the first six months of what I had no inkling at the time would turn out to be a sojourn in London that, although somewhat broken up by moves to France and the States, has now passed the ten-year mark.
I left it out for a very simple reason – it’s hard to go home again if you’ve never actually left. In contrast to Harringay, Stoke Newington and Highbury, Bloomsbury has never ceased to be part of the tapestry that makes up my London. Although I was only ever a student at UCL for six months, it’s a rare fortnight that I don’t end up in Bloomsbury at least once, whether to visit a museum or a library, spend longer than I planned browsing in a bookshop (especially if it’s the London Review Bookshop, which would definitely make my list of the Ten Most Dangerous Bookshops in London… hmm, maybe that’s for a future post), or go to the cinema. I pass my old house all the time and give it a fond glance every time I do, but this familiarity means it lacks the unsettling charge of any of my other old haunts.
However, this year I thought was a fitting one for a return, if only because it marks fifteen years since I first landed in London. I had originally intended to go for my psychogeographical wander on 5 January, which was the actual anniversary, but because I’d had to postpone my holiday trip to the States by a week because, thanks to the negligence of some low-level civil servant, I hadn’t received my renewed visa in time (thanks a lot, Home Office!) I found myself still in sunny California on that day (don’t get me wrong, there are worse places to be). I then thought about doing it in June, which was the month I left, but I couldn’t remember the exact date and I didn’t want to commemorate what had been a wrenchingly sad occasion (I’d stayed up the better part of the night before I left in floods of tears; a tad melodramatic, yes, but at that point I thought I would never see London again).
So, in the end, I settled on a random Sunday in August with no particular significance. Such is life…
My first glimpse of London (not counting Heathrow and the stretch of dreary suburbia along the Piccadilly line between it and Hammersmith) was the bottom of Tottenham Court Road just outside the Tube station, so I decide to recreate my first day in London by starting there.
Of all points on the path to my old house, this end of Tottenham Court Road has undergone the most radical changes; less jarring to me because they’ve occurred under my eyes over a number of years, but if I truly had been away for fifteen years and was only seeing it afresh for the first time, I’d be shocked.
The old Tottenham Court Road station was one of the grottier Underground stations (though I had no way of knowing this that first day, having nothing to compare it to – in any case, the Chicago subway was hundreds of times nastier, so it looked palatial to me), but I distinctly remember that when it spat me out onto the pavement – grubby and horribly jet-lagged after my first transatlantic flight, dragging what felt like all my earthly possessions in two suitcases and a messenger bag like a particularly overloaded snail, but so abuzz with joyful anticipation that my very nerve endings were alight – that grotty, noisy, traffic-choked intersection with its unglamorous shops and smoke-blackened facades looked like paradise. On the northwest corner there was a Virgin Megastore (long gone), on the southeast corner a skyscraper that looked like a cheese grater on Miracle-Grow (a skyscraper in London? I was confused; I thought they were a uniquely American phenomenon), on the southwest corner a tourist-fleecing greasy spoon called Dionysus at which I ate the worst fish and chips of my life that first evening, and beyond that, the legendary Astoria.
Now all of that is gone (well, not the skyscraper, although it’s covered in scaffolding), ploughed under by Crossrail. The new station entrance is slick and spacious, which can only be a good thing, but I can’t help mourning the passing of the Astoria (though not Dionysus). I recently came across an article in Time Out on the twenty-eight signs that you’re a true Londoner and number six was ‘You direct people using buildings that no longer exist as landmarks. “Oh it’s straight past the Swiss Centre, left at the end and then right at Astoria. You’re welcome!”’ Guilty, guilty!
As I stride past the Dominion Theatre (which had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake when I first arrived but now has Michael Flatley’s latest extravaganza, talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous) I can’t help seeing my twenty-year-old self tagging along beside me – exhausted, bedraggled, weighed down by luggage, naïve and shy, gawking at everything in sight, clad in head-to-toe Old Navy, which was more or less the official uniform at my university. (I returned from my two terms at UCL with a handful of dresses and skirts and a pair of pretty sandals – the first to grace my wardrobe in years – and the most frequent comment back in St Louis was ‘Ooh, you look so European now.’ It was never clear whether this was meant as a compliment or a criticism.)
How I’ve changed – outwardly, inwardly. The naïveté and shyness have gradually given way to confidence and comfort in my own skin; the terrible clothes to something that better reflects who I am. Today I’m wearing oxblood Bolongaro Trevor jeans. Fifteen years ago there was very little red in my wardrobe; now it’s one of the dominant hues. It’s a colour that exudes confidence, but you have to be confident to begin with to pull off wearing it.
Great Russell Street, in stark contrast, looks much the same as today as it did back then. The artists’ supplier, L. Cornelissen & Son, is still there and the window display looks as marvellously, defiantly old-fashioned as ever (mahl sticks, no less!). The restaurants and hotels and newsagents, too, all more or less unchanged.
Bloomsbury Street, too, has changed very little. Not so Bedford Square, but in this case the change is decidedly for the better: fifteen years ago it was the eye of a whirlpool of traffic; about ten years ago it was redone to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
Bedford Square exerted a strange fascination on me back then. That beautiful oasis of green and sylvan quiet in the midst of a severe grey Georgian square – but encircled by an impenetrable fence of iron palings that had been there so long that some of the larger trees at the perimeter had actually grown around them. I ached to get in there and revel in the green silence. One of my UCL friends was exceptionally tall and I hit upon the clever plan of getting him to hoist me over the fence on his shoulders; ‘all right,’ he said, clearly amused when I explained it to him, ‘how are you planning on getting out again?’ As I didn’t know anyone with a key and I didn’t really want my time in London to end with me in jail for attempted lock-picking and trespass, I had to abandon my plans. Instead I imagined the garden tended by a brother of Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant who had the reverse problem (he wanted to let children in to play, but couldn’t; it was eternally spring in his garden while it was winter outside) and wrote a poem about it which was very, very bad indeed, so I won’t subject anyone to it by posting it here.
Gower Street – my street – starts just the other side of Bedford Square. Almost every other building has a blue plaque on it, and the first one I saw denoted the house in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. I was dumbstruck the first time I saw it. Some of my favourite artists (indeed, partly responsible for my ultimately deciding to desert English for art history) had actually gathered here, in this unassuming house that looked no different from its neighbours, to throw down a gauntlet to the establishment! The irony was that, back in 2000, said house was occupied by the London Computer Centre, something which I imagine would have had all the artists (and probably John Everett Millais’s father, whose house it was) turning in their graves. Today it’s empty, between owners. I hold out the vague (and probably vain) hope that the next tenant is one somewhat more congenial to the memory of the prior occupants.
Little else has changed in Gower Street. Most of the houses on the east side of the street are still occupied by various departments of UCL or other colleges of the University of London (the Art Deco façade of RADA is still my favourite). The Totalitarian Deco monstrosity that is Senate House (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and it’s obvious why) still looms at the end of Keppel Street. (It remains my least favourite academic library in London, one I tend to view as a last resort.)
The mansion block in Ridgmount Gardens in which I used to fantasise about living someday is still there – although I suspect the price of a flat in there now hovers around a million. Oh well, it’s nice to dream…
The neo-Gothic fantasy that is Waterstones still holds court over Torrington Place. When I first arrived in London, it had only just become a Waterstones and most of the price stickers still said ‘Dillons’. Waterstones/Dillons was a two-minute walk from my house. This was dangerous in the extreme – not only for my bank balance but also for the sheer number of hours I could happily while away there when I should have been working on an essay. I blame it for at least a couple of the all-nighters I pulled.
I have the same attitude to bookshops in London as James Joyce had to pubs in Dublin (‘good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub’ – the solution being to stop into every one on one’s route) so I pop in for old times’ sake and come out feeling quite sad. The place is a mess. Whole sections are empty, or very sparse. It looks as if it’s in the midst of a transitional period, and I can only hope it comes out the other side looking more like its old self.
The building opposite Waterstones used to be the Engineering School lecture theatre, which I got to know very well not for engineering reasons, but because that happened to be where the University College Opera rehearsed. I was part of it (student chorus, professional soloists and conductor, revivals of obscure operas) and had the time of my life. The production we put on that year was that star in the European operatic firmament, an early 20th-century verismo opera called The Jewels of the Madonna which is seldom performed (and notorious) because, among other reasons, the third act features an on-stage orgy. Yes, you read that right.
UCL has undergone a massive programme of new building and general spiffing up in the last decade and a half, so the old lecture theatre is no more. The new Engineering School is smart and state-of-the-art but I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the ramshackle old one.
Around the corner is Foster Court, still home of the English department, scarcely changed (at least on the outside) from my time there. It’s shut (Sunday out of term-time, what did I expect?) but its walls hold a lot of happy memories. Seminars on the contemporary Scottish novel (which I signed up for because I couldn’t get over the fact that we got to read Trainspotting – for class!) led by a young postdoc whose soft-spoken diffidence clashed hilariously with the gusto with which she quoted profanity-riddled passages of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman. Seminars on Jane Austen led by the wonderful John Mullan (of whose stature I had no idea at the time, silly me). Tutorials – tough, bracing, always fascinating – with my tutor, the marvellously and aptly-named Alison Light. (She’s retired now and writing full-time, which is a loss for UCL but a gain for the rest of the world.)
And finally, on to my old house.
It looks more or less exactly as it did when I lived there; my room faces onto the street but the curtains are drawn. Not that there’d be much to see right now, as it’s probably empty, waiting its next set of occupants. (One of the previous ones after my time there was, by spooky coincidence, one of my cousins.) The interior wouldn’t have won any design awards – it looked as if it hadn’t been redecorated since the Second World War (literally – there were even chips of blackout paint still clinging stubbornly to the windows, if you looked close enough). And yet of all the student accommodation I lived in as an undergraduate, I was by far the happiest there. I’d shared the room with an English and dance major from Emory who, on paper, I should not have got on with at all (socially confident, loud, bit of a pothead) but she ended up being the best college roommate I ever had. We tolerated each others’ differences with respect and humour, lent each other books, shared trips to the theatre and made the rounds of most of the cheap curry houses in Drummond Street. We lost touch after we left London, but I recently looked her up and was thrilled to see that, in spite of fierce parental opposition (which was why she was studying English as well as dance) she’s built a successful career as a dancer and choreographer.
I’m almost at the end of my wanderings. I put my head into the main quad of UCL and make a quick detour to the other side of Tottenham Court Road to see if the newsagent where I bought many a late-night Cadbury bar to help power me through an essay is still there (it is!) before ambling back past my old house.
It is an unwritten rule that any psychogeographical exploration of one’s past should end with coffee and cake, and this is where one of the more welcome changes in Bloomsbury becomes apparent. Back when I first lived there, there was a conspicuous lack of cafés. All right, that’s not strictly true – there were a handful of cafés in that peculiarly English mould with cold cases full of sandwich fixings and a few rickety tables and chairs, where you could count on a decent pot of tea but you’d only order coffee if you were feeling adventurous (read: foolhardy). It was a bit of a jolt coming from St Louis, where a lot of my social life was conducted in coffeehouses, partly because I was underage but mostly because my friends and I just liked them. In London I was suddenly old enough to enter a pub, and I ended up spending a lot of time in them with my opera friends, but I couldn’t help longing for good coffee. At the time, the only place nearby that offered something resembling it was the Caffe Nero in Tottenham Court Road (now one of four or five).
Now Store Street boasts not one but three excellent cafés. After a bit of debate, I choose Store Street Espresso and I’m not disappointed. (But, reader, do not abandon common sense like I did and order a matcha cookie along with your cold-brew coffee. The cookie is delicious. So is the coffee. Together, it’s a recipe for an almighty headache.)
I kept a journal during that first six months (which now makes excruciating reading) and as I head back toward Tottenham Court Road station, my brain rattling with the caffeine overdose, one sentence I wrote that first night comes back to me: ‘Every paving stone here is fascinating.’ (I’m not sure, but I think I might possibly have underlined most of the words.) Coming ‘home’ has been salutary, and not only because, unlike the other three of my former London homes, Bloomsbury’s memories are of almost pure happiness. It’s also reminded me to pay more attention to what has now become ordinary and everyday. To not take for granted what a continually surprising and wondrous place I live in.
I might not be that unworldly and easily impressed twenty-year-old anymore. But I haven’t entirely lost my sense of wonder. I hope I never will.