Hot, an­gry Lon­don – the ul­ti­mate test for a Stoic

The Oldie - - TOWN MOUSE - tom hodgkin­son

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’

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