A City Of Darkness Part 1

London, Observatory

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.

4 comments on “A City Of Darkness Part 1”

  1. Wayne says:

    I have a collection of Postcards that have all been taken at night around london in the late Forties to early Sixties. They have an amazing atmosphere. I also remember the first few months after moving out of London being amazed at how much Sky you could see and how the light was different, more alive……

  2. Fiona says:

    I just wanted to flag up that Tippi Hedren is appearing at the BFI on 16 August as part of the Hitchcock season they have there in August. Her appearance is also linked with the BBC film The Girl about Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi. That’s being shown with a Q&A on 16 August too, later on in the evening. BFI members have priority booking from 3 July.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I’m sorry you have the curse of the Northern Countries. It’s a real problem. Days of cloud, rain, fog, falling sleet and snow and little light seem to really bother many people. My father, my son and I pretty much “just do our thing” every day no matter what; not so with the many women in the family. Most of them get “down” when the light grows low and the bad weather comes in.
    Actually,I work best in the middle of everything and nearly as well in silence.(I’m not sure I could last as a lighthouse keeper, though, too much silence and not enough distraction to block out in order to achieve sharp focus.
    Admin, be glad you’re a writer, not a painter, van Gough was always seeking light and it cost him an ear.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Just back from a week in Portland Oregon where even the locals were complaining about the is/is not rain we had. A chamber music conference being held at the same time as ours had picnic dinners on the quad two nights of their week and it poured rain on one of them. A member of their group said that the same thing happens every year, but they go ahead anyway.
    While standing in the middle of Powell’s books in Portland (4 floors of new and old books – fabulous) I thought about how Chris would love the store and went to the fantasy section where I found a copy of the mass market paperback, 1990, of Roofworld. Hooray, hooray! In between classes in illumination and italics I read it and know that I will read it again. Now there was some London weather: freezing everyone’s hands, ears (especially Robert)and other anatomical parts, blowing the cold right into people and muffling everyone in snow and sleet. Thoroughly nasty weather all ’round, just the thing to go with the thoroughly nasty villain. It was nice to meet Janice Longbright (although I thought she was blond) and Bimsly (although I didn’t think he was either quite so big or slow) and the ever popular coroner.
    Oh, and Powell’s has a cafe but you’re asked to take in only books you’re seriously considering buying and no book costing more than $50. The biggest counter is the buying counter where you bring the ones you want to sell. It’s so big that it’s almost overpowering but lots of helpful staff and colour coded rooms (washrooms are in the purple room) to help you find things. They have a gallery, too, and were showing the local guild’s calligraphic exhibition.

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