Sally Emer­son

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My Lon­don

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.

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