Someone asked me recently what it is that I miss most about England, about London specifically, since leaving to travel and then live overseas. For a while I was completely floored, not a single idea what on earth they could mean: I’ve been living elsewhere – to put it euphemistically – since the mid-Eighties, so the idea of what I could miss, coupled with the many, many experiences of life overseas, is somewhere in the back of my brain, stored as being old, vintage if not antique. I’ve since spent a good deal of time thinking about this very simple question, since the answer, as you can imagine, is far more complicated than my questioner could have imagined. What is it about our former life that we miss the most?
I left London, the city of my birth, in the early Eighties when my travels began. It was not my first break from the city, from the hub of cultural life, as some people have called it, but probably my third. Many years locked up in a boarding school in Yorkshire, life outside the city in childhood when my family decided to try living elsewhere, and then an initial period of travelling before the bug gripped properly and tore me away from my roots. My memories of the city, of the cultural and social life I experienced in the Sixties and some of the Seventies through to the early Eighties, is tainted by my own tastes, and by the interests I had adopted in an effort to escape the bonds of education, to escape what we, as children, were told we had to appreciate and the map of our future lives which was set out before us as if there could be no alternative. My experiences of the city and its surrounding suburbs cover a time of great change, as the United Kingdom was entering the European Union, wondering what to do with all the immigrants from Pakistan and Uganda – whilst battling with the racist speeches of the likes of Enoch Powell – and coming to terms not only with the politics of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, but also the cultural changes of the Punk, Mod and Goth eras, the glitter of some pop stars set against the bin-bag fashions of others.
If I really had to remember anything about these times, it would be the wonders of Camden Market. I don’t mean that market which you could visit today, with its massive floor space and countless commercial sellers, but the small, fledgling market place around the Camden locks with potters and glass makers and a small bookstore right on the entrance way. Here I would listen to music played for anyone who cared to stop, stare at the potter using her wheel to create all those things which I loved but could not afford, browse through the limited shelf space of the bookshop under the watchful eye of the owner or his wife. Then there were the stalls themselves, not every day, run by people with a real interest in what they had created, what they had to sell. I always have a memory of a set of traffic lights on one stall, a three-volume set of history books on another – massive and bound in broken leather – and joss sticks, incense burners, coloured fabrics and materials, clothing for the late hippy culture these people seemed almost to desire as a life-long way of life. Fresh coffee and cakes in a bare store-room, eaten sitting on makeshift chairs around rough wooden tables. And, of course, the yellow-covered paperback copy of Bob Dylan’s musical lyrics, which I convinced someone to buy for me.
The follow-up question, after being asked what I miss, is whether I want to go back to London, and my thoughts are always much clearer on this point. My London is no longer there. The city that I knew up into the early Eighties has long since become a different place, nothing like my memories. The people are gone or have changed along with the places, the houses, the market. I could probably find my way around the area, even back to the house I lived in for a few years in Chalk Farm, right on the edge of Primrose Hill, but no more than that. Why go back, I always ask the questioner, to a place which is no longer there? And, of course, as you can imagine, they do not understand what I mean because London is still there, it still exists. Except that it is not my London. Heraclitus – one of the earliest philosophers known to us – put it very well indeed when he wrote that the river we place our hand in, to feel the cool waters streaming across our skin, is not the same river that we take our hand out of.
What I would love to do, one day, is visit London not as a place of memories, for fear that I would lose them with all the new impressions, but as a new city unknown to me. Step onto the streets as if I had never been there before, with the eyes of a child finding something new and exciting. I would love to hear music being played by a busker on some street corner, as if I had never heard anything similar in my entire life. See market stalls in a flea market somewhere – Camden Lock or Portobello Road, Brick Lane, wherever – as if the whole idea had just come to someone and caught on like a new craze. I try to explain this to those who live around me, who see the same small town day in, day out, and do not appreciate it, do not comprehend it importance, understand that what they are seeing and experiencing is their life and future memories, who are unable to accept each new day as a new start, a new venture. Perhaps if they, like you and I, were in our position, they’d see things with different eyes, with a more open mind, with the joy of a child experiencing something as if for the very first time.
What I do now is visit the memories and visions of those across the world who write letters, who see and share, who overcome their qualms about connecting to strangers and settle down with a pen in hand to partake in that ancient, noble art of letter writing. Sharing something we cannot define, a certain form of offered friendship which springs over every conceivable boundary created by man, and which has lasted over so many centuries it is hard to imagine a time when letters were not written, appreciated and saved for future enjoyment. For my own part, I share several decades of travel experiences, as well as a good deal of literary and philosophical writing, in the style of a Victorian letter writer, a Charles Dickens or Jane Welsh Carlyle which, for some is as much of a challenge as finding something to write about. But, should you care to take this journey, step into an unknown world, pick up the gauntlet of my challenge, I would be more than pleased to join you. And if you are not sure how to begin, have not written a letter since that last well-meant Christmas present from a grandparent far away was unwrapped and puzzled over, I enclose an image provoker which, perhaps, will bring a few memories back, a few ideas, and words on paper. And if not, well, it was a pleasure writing to you, unknown, far away, whatever, and I wish you all the good things you wish for yourself and those around you.
[*Dear Reader letters are written to people whose names I do not know but who all have one thing in common: they are undergoing some form of intense medical treatment – such a chemotherapy. These letters are included in packages gifted to people through various charities.]