Hot, angry London – the ultimate test for a Stoic
To retreat from the world and devote oneself to poetry and philosophy is a beautiful ideal, and Town Mouse occasionally feels its pull.
For all its attractions, city life can be harrowing, exhausting, depressing. ‘Don’t push me cos I’m close to the edge,’ sang Grandmaster Flash in their 1982 hit, ‘The Message’, and recent months have driven town mice everywhere very close to losing their heads.
In June, my sleep was disturbed by the whine of helicopters and, in the morning, we found out that Grenfell Tower was on fire. The tower is almost exactly halfway between my home and my office and, that morning, on Portobello Road, I stopped my bicycle and gazed with horror at the flames.
Later that day, we gathered some clothes and dropped them at a collection point. The authorities were seemingly doing nothing, while fantastic relief efforts were being co-ordinated by mosques and churches. It was stirring to see people organising themselves with no obvious leader.
As has been repeatedly noted, Grenfell Tower is in a very poor area which is right next door to one of the richest in the world: London’s Monte Carlo, Holland Park, where houses go for £8 million and the only people to be seen on the streets are builders digging basements and Filipino nannies wheeling blonde children around in mega-buggies.
I cycle through both areas every day. And what strikes me is that the poor people are out on the street, playing, sitting on the steps, hanging out, chatting, smiling, while the rich people are literally invisible. There’s no community vibe; just separated individuals living in elegant fortresses, driving around in gigantic, black Range Rovers with darkened windows.
I suppose that the contrast between rich and poor in the city is nothing new. I remember thinking I was really profound when, aged 12, I painted a picture of the doorway of Harrods. An oil sheikh was emerging and on the street was a beggar. Get it?
Strolling along the Strand these days, for example, is a miserable, Hogarthian experience. A subculture of homeless people live alongside the workers. On my way to a meeting with my publisher not long ago, I saw a young man vomiting into a bin while his mates sniffed what looked like aerosol cans. Maniacs have mown down pedestrians in a series of attacks in London. What happened to progress?
Wealth breeds misery. The streets of San Francisco are covered in meth addicts and junkies. Well-heeled geeks step over them, on their way to work at global ad sales companies like Google and Facebook. For all their much-vaunted intelligence and wealth, the Silicon Valley geeks have been unable to solve the problems of poverty on their own doorstep.
These are not new issues, nor are they uncommon. Growing up in London in the Seventies and Eighties, it was the IRA which was the enemy. And people complained about ill-conceived, modernist council estates back then as well: ‘Burn it down, burn it down, burn it down to the ground,’ sang Three Wize Men, England’s early rap combo, about their council homes, in the track ‘Urban Hell’.
Small wonder that some near neighbours are moving out of Shepherd’s Bush to a farmhouse in South Wales. We did the same thing in the Noughties and became country mice for twelve years.
We returned to the city, though, because we wanted to get back to the heart of things, despite the horrors.
The idea of moving to the country to preserve your sanity has been around for ever. The great sage and philosopher Epicurus was born in Athens around sixty years after the death of Socrates. He was the founder of a philosophical school called the Garden. He and his followers rejected the distractions and vanities of the city, in favour of growing their own vegetables and wandering round philosophising. A recent comparison is Gandhi or Tolstoy. The influence of Epicurus was to echo down the centuries: Virgil quit the city to live on an Epicurean commune and, later, Karl Marx wrote his PHD about Epicurus.
A cottage with roses round the doorway, a wood-burning stove inside, plus a cat and a pile of books may be an option for some. But not everyone can or even wants to retire to the shires. So, rather than Epicurus, town mice should perhaps look to Zeno the Stoic for guidance on how to cope with the neverending misery of the city.
Stoicism was a precursor to Christianity and combined a sort of surrender to God’s will with a tough-minded insistence on self-control. Stoic philosopher Epictetus said we waste energy on pursuing the fruitless goal of changing other people, when we should be concentrating on changing our own reactions to events because that, after all, is in our control.
I behaved in a very non-stoic fashion the other day, when crawling down Uxbridge Road in the car with the windows open. It was very hot. My 17-year-old son announced that he had decided not to bother working for his school exams.
‘What’s the point in going to university?’ he said.
‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing!’ I bellowed. ‘That’s pathetic!’
A young Asian man on the pavement looked over, glared at me and shouted, ‘Who are you talking to, bruv?’
‘It’s nothing to do with you!’ I shouted. ‘I’m discussing university options with my son!’ ‘Oh right,’ he said, and toddled off. We were that close to a fight – over nothing. Summer in the city. We’re reaching boiling point.
‘He just googled the children’