The Indoorsness Of London
Many people coming to London from another country are surprised by a simple word they here all the time: ‘Indoors’. It seems to hold a host of meanings. ‘Outdoors’ is the bit you go through to get to Indoors (or as Dorothy Parker once said, ‘The bit between the taxi and the hotel’). London, between October and May, is almost entirely Indoors.
Forget that handful of brave and foolhardy runners you see jogging beside the canal, they’re Polish. And those ones zooming along the South Bank? They’re American. Shoppers don’t count either, because they’re moving between different Indoors environments. My partner says he’d never considered the concept of Indoors before moving here and now can’t get away from it. Why does the idea remain so marked on our consciousness?
First, there’s the inclemency of the weather, the fact that we’re a Northern country, but unlike crisp, wintry Iceland or Denmark we’re also a damp, wet one. We suffer from ‘secret rain’; when you can’t actually see it but know it’s there because something is making the roads wet. Coupled with that is the weather’s sheer unreliability all year around. It should, in theory, be sunny on a clear-skied August day, but there’s a good chance that in ten minutes’ time any summer’s day will be pouring and/or icy cold.
An artist friend of mine was commissioned to paint a picture of some people picnicking on a sunny English day, and first painted his canvas brown before painting the picture over it. When asked why he’d done it he replied; ‘I needed to capture that colour of English grass that you automatically test with your hand before lowering yourself on.’ He was right; the finished painting had English-looking grass.
Weather aside, the structure of the city, its sturdy Victorian homes (now slowly being replaced by boxy apartments) meant there was a uniformity in our lives. All Victorian houses conform to the same layouts, and there was always a room where you could sit in the warm and do things. You can read about these in a wonderful book by Harry Mount called ‘A Lust For Windowsills’. Front rooms were kept for best because they could be seen into from the street. Back rooms were dining rooms and kitchens where you did your messy living. Mount points out that in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1841) two characters take a walk from Smithfield to Finchley – that’s around ten miles – and on the way see nothing but concrete and brick. The Indoors was already well established by then. Indoors was where recreation took place, not Outdoors. Mothers sewed and cooked, fathers mended and built things, children made models, drew, wrote and ‘made their own amusement’. Indoors was for playing, creating and thinking.
A new TV series, ‘Goggle Box’, a self-reflexive reality TV show, watches people watching TV and commenting. Apart from being by far the grimmest, least interesting programme ever made, it shows people still trapped within the concept of Indoors, except that now they have nothing to do except watch television and grow fat. They have opinions (usually staggeringly ill-informed ones) but would never think of checking a fact they don’t agree with in a book, because from what I can see they don’t own any books. For them the Outdoors is a place to shop. (NB Some of these redundant sofa-slobs are now being used in TV commercials, and they have their own book out. I wish I was making this up).
I grew up building model planes, boats, plaster statues, ‘paper-crafting’ ie. making paper sculptures and pinwheels from which you could build up pictures by turning them, writing in journals, painting, plasticene modelling, balsa-wood modelling, hobby-kit making and trying other pastimes. In an old Tony Hancock episode, Tony says to a bored Bill, temptingly; ‘Would you like to take the clock to bits?’ My Dad used to do that.
The sheer lack of Outdoors, ie. outdoor activity, that could be relied upon encouraged internal life, and I think in the process inspired creativity, which is why you always hear the same refrain; that British ideas drove the world but were always developed to their fullest overseas. There was a time when much of London was restricted to the rich.
In actual fact, for anyone venturing Outdoors this week there’s an unparalleled level of things to do; London is stuffed to the gills with a rolling roster of events, and once again we’re returning to a time when they’re just for the rich. Consider this: Twice as many people visit the theatre as go to Premier League football. There are approximately 80 ‘official’ theatres in London, and probably as many fringe shows. Add galleries, museums, art events, pop-ups, restaurants, concerts, markets, cinemas, clubs, bars, pubs, AND shops and you realise why London retains its top position; it’s not restricted in size like NYC. But the only exterior events are sporting activities in grounds and parks. Of course, the numbers are hugely swelled by tourists.
Indoors is where things are created, and as our world has internalised further, developing the internet as a tool for exploring our inner lives, it’s curiously suited to sitting inside and thinking. Take today; I have some things to do in town but the skies are almost black with rain, and I’m thinking maybe I’ll have to postpone that trip and get back to writing. So here I am again, sitting and coming up with ideas.