The transition back to London after months of freedom on the marshes of East Anglia was bound to be a bumpy one. I’ve lived in London most of my life, so it was strange to find myself feeling like a stranger, observing the bustling crowd without feeling a part of it.
So many people, and in such a rush. So many cars, lorries, buses, so much noise. On my first week back I navigated the streets like a country bumpkin, staring upwards at the cliffs of glass and stone buildings that reduced the sky to a few bands of blue. Where was everyone going, in such an incredible hurry? People were talking constantly – not to each other, mostly, but into mobile phones, headphones plugged in, marooned in their own mental spaces. Each man fixed his eyes before his feet… I found myself muttering snatches of TS Eliot’s Wasteland. A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many. I had not thought death had undone so many.
At work, it was good to see friendly familiar faces. But the sense of rush was all-pervading. How are you? I’d ask, making a cup of tea in the staff kitchen. Ridiculously busy. It’s manic, was the inevitable answer. How about you? You must have loads to do. For a few days, I answered truthfully: No, not really. The look of shock on people’s faces reminded me that there’s an etiquette to these things. Everyone is busy, all the time. Otherwise what are we there for?
Still feeling disjointed, I decided to walk over to Russell Square one lunchtime and immerse myself in culture. The British Museum would remind me of all that was best about London. The casual access to world-class art, for anyone wandering in off the street. The welcome to people of every nationality, mingling beneath classical architecture. The Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Marbles, the Sutton Hoo treasure.
What can I say? It was a hot day. The huge plane trees in the square cast inviting shadows. I took off my shoes and stretched full length in the shade, then fell asleep. Awakening (fortunately after only half an hour) I gazed up at the leafy canopy. London has the most exquisite trees, kindly ancient guardians, sheltering us from sun and rain, muffling the noise, cleansing the air. And in Bloomsbury, you’re never more than a minute from a garden square.
I imagined Charles Dickens hastening by, his quick eye missing nothing as he headed from Tavistock House to his office in Fleet Street. Lytton Strachey lounged on the grass, pontificating on modern art in the shade of a lime tree. Virginia Woolf perched on a bench beneath a silver birch, plotting Mrs Dalloways’ walk across the city, from park to park. The British Museum may have temporarily lost its charm, but the trees of London retain their magic. Maybe I’ll stay.