I’m away from London at the moment, and darting across scorching streets from shadow to shadow, avoiding the blazing continental sunlight. All around me, people are doing what Londoners only dream about – rollerblading, dancing, lounging about in bright light. The guarantee of outdoor light encourages group activities.
It’s the light you notice most of all in London. It’s low and mutes every colour to something with at least a hint of grey in it. Once, my artist friend Graham Humphries was asked to paint a poster featuring a sunny summer’s day in Oxford. He started by painting the entire canvas brown. Then he painted over the whole thing and put in grass, sky, people.
I asked him why he had first made the canvas dark. He told me; ‘Oh, you know what English grass looks like. You never know whether it will be dry enough to sit on.’ And sure enough, his picture had unmistakeable English grass.
My favourite quote from Charles Dickens about London comes right at the start of ‘Bleak House’, in which he points out that there is so much mud in the streets that it would not be surprising to meet a forty-foot Megalosaurus ‘waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-Hill’, and that even the snowflakes are covered in soot, ‘gone into mourning for the death of the sun’.
There’s something about London that brings out the darkest moods in writers. The low level of light that mutes the shades of grass, brick and concrete – the very things that depress those of us who suffer through the purgatorial months of January and February – are the things most loved by those from climes where the skies are always high and raw.
London’s geography matches its weather, being perverse, willful, confusing and unsettling. It is said that if a young woman can look good in London, she can look good anywhere. The city is never less than atmospheric, a place that is perennially popular because it is here, according to the Planning Officer of the City of London, that the young come to have sex.
But I’m pretty sure that here in a hot country where the skies are wide and dazzling and you must hide away from the heat in shady bars, there’s a lot of sex going on too. And in a city where it doesn’t get dark before ten, and nobody goes out to eat before then, there’s a sense of communal living that thrills the soul.
As someone who loves London and takes great pleasure in it, I’m also aware that I’m never entirely in it for long periods. It was said of JG Ballard that he didn’t care where he lived because he lived inside his head. That’s a great trick to pull off – having to avoid depression is the curse of the Northern countries.