There are certain things I don’t do. For example, I don’t do empathy very well, but we’ve covered that particular patch of ground before. Nor do I eat much in the way of salad (and not much harm has it done me). I don’t put “.com” at the end of Facebook updates about how tired/drunk/fabulous I am because it’s cretinous. And until very recently, I didn’t do London.
The very idea of London has always terrified me beyond all reasonable comprehension, much of the blame for which we can lay squarely at my mother’s door. Her sole visit to the capital in 1968 (a trip, I think, designed to broaden horizons but which instead had the effect of narrowing them considerably) resulted in a lifelong conviction that London was only tolerable if one had a natural predeliction for being robbed, raped or murdered. None of which I particularly fancied.
The occasional foray notwithstanding (such as a disastrous 1988 school trip to see Jill Gascoigne in “42nd Street” during which half the boys in my class were chased down Charing Cross Road by a group of angry Italians enraged by some national stereotyping ripped straight from the script of “‘Allo ‘Allo”), I’ve therefore spent much of my adult life actively avoiding London, preferring to live in medium sized cities such as Glasgow and Bristol; places where not everybody knows your name but quite a few people do. As such I’d managed to retain both a spotless visage and the certain knowledge that within five minutes of my fresh faced arrival in London, my wallet and all practical means of identification, including teeth, would have been stolen.
This, it turns out, was something of a mistake on my part. I’ve been here a month now, and so far no foul play has befallen me, nor is it, I think, especially likely to. Being tall here helps – it seems that my sheer size reduces the amount of natural predators (the same can not be said of Glasgow, where above average height is, in itself, often taken as a) a challenge and b) a natural act of aggression) and the advantage of having a comparatively aerial view means that it’s quite easy to spot trouble coming and avoid it. It’s less useful when I’m crammed by the train doors on the Victoria line, giving me no choice but to read exactly what the fifty-something woman with the week-per-page Cliff Richard diary is up to (it’s Jan’s engagement party this Thursday and the Cotswolds for the weekend), but it’s certainly more useful than not.
What I came to realise quite quickly was that to survive, I needed to find my “London face” – a means by which I could seamlessly blend in with millions of other people whilst still serving the twin ambitions of deflecting unwanted attention and encouraging desirable attention. To achieve this, I’ve fallen back on a lesson that has served me well over the years -that affecting a stance is nearly always as good as actually having one. So in my head, I had the faint notion that were I ever to become a Londoner, I’d be the sort that had the wireless tuned into Radio 4 for most of the day. The sort that reads vaguely challenging novels on the tube, deftly turning the pages with one hand and occasionally catching the eye of someone whose glance says “good choice. I approve”.
Therefore, I listen to Radio 4 now. I am a Radio 4 listener. And I’m not entirely certain quite how I got through life up to this point without “Woman’s Hour”. I whip out my Will Self as I trundle to Shepherd’s Bush every day and enjoy the occasional looks of consternation I get as the lady opposite me thinks to herself “is that a penis on the cover of his book?”. Yes, it is madam. And while in truth I am not particularly enjoying this novel, filled as it is with far too many unpleasant similes and astonishing bitterness, I am enjoying the stance that it gives me – I may only have a vague notion of what that stance is (possibly one of being a gigantic knob), but it is my London one, and it’s helping me to adjust. Let’s see what happens, shall we?