Sally Emerson is the award-winning author of novels including ‘Heat’, ‘Separation’ and ‘Second Sight’ and an anthologist of poetry and prose. Her six novels are being published by Quartet this year. She lives in London. This is the twenty-third article in our regular series of “My London”.
Oh my London how I have loved you. I thought it was the boys, then the men, then the babies I loved but it was you all along. The boys and the men and the babies changed unrecognisably over the years but you remain constant. Sure you grow a building here or there, put on a new coat of paint, but essentially the core of you is the same, not the stiff formality of Paris, but the exuberance at the heart of my most beloved city. All my novels bar one are set in London and though they are love stories that have stepped into other darker territories so much of the passion is reserved for you who first seduced me aged fifteen.
When I arrived with my family from Wimbledon we landed up in Victoria which was as unsettled as I was. On my first weekend in Victoria I discovered telephone boxes with the numbers of big-breasted women pinned all around, and shabby video shops next to vintage clothes shops. There was nothing like this in Wimbledon.
Everyone looked shifty and some carried suitcases on their way to and from the station. I didn’t want to belong I realised. The smell of your shiftiness sent shivers down my spine. Later, my first novel Second Sight featured a puritanical and imaginative fifteen-year-old girl living in Victoria seduced by her wild mother’s boyfriend. But of course it wasn’t really the boyfriend who kissed me those warm summer evenings and led me from childhood to adulthood. It was the breeze from the river on my skin, and the giant plane trees of Vincent Square which rustled and whispered promises in my ear. Always you, London, in all your wickedness and charm. Such a skilful, teasing lover with so much experience. You spoilt me for any other city
because none are as enticing as you.
But even then I knew you weren’t all mine. In Westminster Abbey I used to visit the Little Cloister and like my heroine in Second Sight watch the sparrows having a shower in the central fountain and I felt your other lovers with me, the monks and kings and queens and passers-by who visited this tiny jewel-like cloister with enamelled blue sky above. It still contained all their love, as do the many corners and thoroughfares and doorways of your empire. Such a snippet of time since Charles II walked along the Mall, since Whitehall was his palace, since Islington was a village, since Elizabeth 1 drifted along the Thames. London for me has never existed just in the present, but is shared by all those who have ever lived here. Keats is still sitting under the plum tree where he wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Keats Grove. Even its fictional inhabitants share the streets; I see Bill Sykes round many a corner.
In Vincent Square I lost my virginity in my purple-painted basement bedroom and I was sad afterwards. But I had you to comfort me, especially on my walk over your river. On the way to Vauxhall Bridge Station (I still went to school in Wimbledon) I’d stop and watch the boats and think about Queen Elizabeth travelling down the river by barge in jewels and pearls and velvets to Richmond from Whitehall. As I noted the changing morning colours of the water my heart would twist. My faithless faithful lover shared favours with everyone yet was mine alone. And is still mine. My six novels are all being reissued this year and as I read through them you are everywhere – in transient buoyant Victoria, by the river in Separation, in Fire Child set in Highbury Fields as a place of danger and damage and lust, where the devil hangs out on street corners and the heroine can make any man fall in love with her, and she does, coolly, cleverly, nobody’s victim.
On the face of it Highbury was changing from a dishevelled workingclass area to a spruce middle class one. But places have identities deep in the soil, to do with their exact location, and it had had a reputation for bawdiness since 1740 when a small ale and cake house was opened in the Barn, Highbury. Here I felt a wildness and strangeness – with the grand
Georgian houses overlooking the scrap of land which is Highbury Fields – and it was this that inspired Fire Child, written in diary form alternating between dangerous young lovers, Tessa and Martin. When Martin first sees her he writes that her face reminds him ‘of the corners of rooms, of turnings into dark alleyways ….’ Even the choice of words is urban. Could I have written them in Wimbledon where my panic was not caused by dark alleyways but open spaces and empty streets? What kind of lover would the suburbs be, certainly less worldly?
Boyfriends marry other people but London never does. The streets I have visited, the flowers I staggered home with from Columbia Road, the euphoria of the four a.m. streets when the colour has drained from the city, the cheese sandwich in the workman’s café on white bread, they will always be mine. Columbia Road is still the same as it was years ago, with the same cast, same sales patter, though the faces are different and there are some smart shops selling cup cakes.
Your river is never far away, insouciantly skimming through your centre like mercury, throwing light all around. Cool and malevolent and beautiful Tessa intends to persuade one of her companions to balance on the rails of Westminster bridge, and to fall:
A few fat drops of rain were falling down and below the bridge the Thames flowed thick and dark, glossy with reflected lights. We were leaning on the wide grey railings and looking south….. Lightning was illuminating the sky like fireworks and the Houses of Parliament looked hardly real, as though made of balsa wood.
My books are in part about power, and central London is all about that. Tessa writes:
As we walked through Soho, down Charing Cross Road out into Trafalgar Square, the air grew clammier. We passed the four huge black lions which guard London, we passed Nelson standing on his column bathed in a curious green light, we walked along Whitehall
beside the Foreign Office, Downing Street, the great expanse of the Ministry of Defence – until we reached Parliament Square, with Westminster Bridge behind it, where I realised I had been aiming all along.
I used to feel that the timeless buildings somehow belittled humanity but I don’t feel that now. They glorify us because they glorify you, London, and you are us, from the stone devil gargoyles glaring down on the church below at 54-55 Cornhill, to the wonder of the perfect dome of St Paul’s. Martin writes in Fire Child:
The clear air was cold and the dogs pranced and prowled and snuffled across the great green cloth. The grand houses linking the side of the grass faded until only their shape and the greeny-white hue of the painted windows remained.
Every step of my life still has its marker in London. My boyfriend and I had a house in Stavordale Road in Highbury and sold it to Tony and Cherie Blair (number 10). When I pass by we are still there, our first curly-haired child still standing in the huge doorway. X marks so many spots.
Oh London, you are my autobiography, you have all my best lines, my kisses are still going on in the street corners, my first lobster, first champagne, first rock concert, first great theatre, my knee is still touching that austere older man in L’Escargot over lunch, and he still isn’t telling me he cares about me. You have been the witness to my pains as well as my pleasures and you have made me everything I am as a writer and a person.
Oh my London, when I die I will leave my children, my house, my husband, my family, but you? How can I bear to leave you? Most dear London, your past and your present and your future are all one, as mine is all one. When I read the novels I wrote earlier I am that young girl, and the young mother, and all the people I have ever been, all at once, like a Russian doll, one within the other.
In Separation a woman separated from her child who lives further down the river stands by the Thames in docklands. The worn stairs leads down to the beach where some barges are ‘rusting to the accompaniment of excited seagulls practising their soars and shouts. The beach also features a wide variety of rubbish including an old tyre, some empty cans of soft drinks, various bits of wood, and the left hand of a glove.’ Last year I went ‘mudlarking’ on the Thames foreshore. Twice a day the Thames draws back and reveals the foreshore where fragments of the past of London are thrown up from the mud of the Thames. We found broken clay pipes which used to be sold full of tobacco from America in the 1580s, shards of original Tudor roof tiles, oyster shells, even what the guide said were tiny bits of Roman pottery. The past is always here here in London - the old Roman wall jostled up against the new skyscrapers in Tower Hill – and it even lands up on its beaches.
In London you never know quite to expect except nothing will be quite what you expect. London is the Lucian Freud or Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger of seducers, imaginative, teasing. In Separation, which is about the pain of mothers separated from their children, a mother interviews a nanny about a job while:
the sun goes in and the Thames darkens with dirt and time…On the opposite bank a large warehouse stares at Sarah and a giant builder’s crane stoops down to its work. A pigeon sits on the wall of the apartment’s terrace and surveys the scene with the authority of a hawk.
The unexpected beauty of London – the splendour of a pigeon which thinks it is a hawk - is part of what intoxicates, the contradictions and contrasts and surprises. The river separates the mother and child, but the child works out a way for the river to bring her mother back to her.
I will never quite understand London, my cool, embracing, mysterious and wicked lover. My novels are an attempt to come closer to what you are and the passion at the heart of you. But whatever you are we all celebrate you every day.