The new building in my street has already turned green. Moss covers the stonework, and hardy, invasive Buddleia bushes are once more sprouting from drain-fed brickwork. There’s no getting away from it; apart from a few bright spring days and a few corresponding crisp ones in the autumn, London is dank. The morning mists rise, the evening mists sink, and although the end of coal burning means that fogs and smogs are largely a thing of the past, there’s a dim softness to the winter air that robs the streets of hard edges.
It was a colder city before the mid-20th century, and you can see the difference in paintings hanging in the National Gallery, where the frosty, gelid air recalls pictures by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and white landscapes meet silver skies. It has been argued that this is why people from cold countries wear bright colours abroad; they associate harsh sunlight with vibrancy. The residents around me in Barcelona laugh at such clothing; in bright countries, they wear autumn colours.
The need for light becomes chronic in February, the meanest month, and yet most new houses built around the country replicate Victorian plans, with small windows; is the desire for privacy really more important than the need to let light in?
Paris does not run parallel to London but is, of course, far below it, making it brighter and more burnished in the light. The only decent side effect of this high latitude is the late sunsetting of summer, perfect for walks – a habit not shared by America, for here walking is aimless and does not require boots, water bottles and a backpack, just your work shoes and a jacket. Mooching is the natural mode for Londoners, where the city is big enough to get lost in, but tightly packed to keep throwing surprises your way.
The dank atmosphere is perfect for murder mysteries, too, fostering an aura of menace, even though it is now one of the safer cities of Europe. Perfect books to read on a dank London day are ‘Tiger In The Smoke’ by Margery Allingham, ‘Maggie Muggins’ by Keith Waterhouse or ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton, all redolent of these low-light streets and the indoor society encouraged by the inhospitability of the outdoors.