Reading the City

Perhaps it’s a legacy from my time in academia that when I read articles about familiar topics, I find myself asking, “What gaps in our knowledge does this address?” Sarah Lyall’s New York Times article, “Lessons from Living in London,” has been doing the rounds, and I’m afraid that the lesson I have learned from it is that ex-pats don’t always see the parts of a city that make it so unique – the parts that make it different from where you left behind, and which make you fall in love with it and call it home. I’d say that even though you may be geographically within London – and pretty close to the center of it – you can’t get a good sense for what it is to actually live in London if your only experiences are of Notting Hill, Kensington, Hampstead, and Angel.

Unfortunately, at points in the article where I think Lyall is about to launch into fascinating detail, the prose falls short. For example, she writes, “Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole.” And that may be true, but unfortunately for the reader, she does not elaborate on how or why. I start thinking, where is her evidence? Of course years spent in a city of over 7 million souls should make evidence thick on the ground. And far beyond simply confirming her claim, I want to read about how and why residents feel so connected to their individual dots on a map. What are those unique features high streets have that set them apart from each other within a sea of identical chain stores? Lyall could have gone into detail here and captured part of why people fall in love with London, but instead, we don’t get anything other than the standard well-off expat experience. We don’t get any sense for what those neighborhoods even are, because she doesn’t go to them. When she says “residents,” who does she mean? Who does she know, who has she talked to? American expats? Native-born Londoners? New immigrants? It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think the rich and unique life of the city is found in Kensington, a place barely anybody can afford anymore.

Now, Zadie Smith is one of those authors you either love or hate, but there is no denying she has a gift for rich description of parts of London that are far from the tourist path. You have people in middle-of-nowhere Kansas who have a rudimentary idea of what Willesden and Kilburn are like thanks to her books. To me, the uniqueness of London is found by going way up the Edgware Road, or any other main route, to where people who moved without corporate backing live. Of course, Lyall’s experiences are her own, they’re completely valid, and I would be dead wrong to criticise anybody for writing a piece that wasn’t exactly what I want to read, but at the same time, an article that is about living in London needs to go beyond what has already been written ad infinitum. If your experience of a city outside the touristed areas is the same as that of a tourist – e.g. very limited – then what is the point of living in that city? Even though the woes of newspaper publishing nowadays are well-known, the New York Times obviously wasn’t going to make her live in the places most new arrivals to London tend to land, but Kensington and Angel are essentially bubbles. They could be anywhere. Only living there and then saying you know London would be like imagining all there is to New York City is Midtown Manhattan and maybe Brooklyn Heights. Meaning, you’re missing out on so, so much.

Go beyond zone 1 and you’ll see what makes London unlike anywhere else in the world. The Tottenham High Road, now widely known for being the birthplace of the 2011 riots, has businesses catering to immigrants from everywhere from Colombia to Ghana to Poland, yet it remains distinctly a part of England with gems like Bruce Castle and the Walthamstow Marshes. Go past Hampstead into Golders Green and there’s a park with wildlife you’d associate more with Australia than North London. I don’t mean to get all “Bro do you even North London,” because Sarah Lyall can only write about what she has experienced and everybody’s life is going to be different and this isn’t a bloody competition, but it is the fact that her article seems to indicate she didn’t experience very much of what the city has to offer off the beaten path that really gets me. The article is about living in London, but I see little of the London I lived and loved. Have you had a wander through Crystal Palace Park? Gone up the hill to Alexandra Palace and looked out at all those rooftops and wondered about the people beneath them? Have you walked the canals and the reservoirs and the places where it’s hard to believe you’re actually still in a massive city? Have you gone past Canary Wharf to the little farm in Mudchute? Then walked through a public tunnel underneath the river to Greenwich? When those riots erupted, did you hear people talking about Broadwater Farm and did you know it not as someplace grown, but someplace built? Ever navigated using the Wembley Arch? Felt guilty about the nice clothes you got so cheaply at the market in Bow because errrrrrrm maybe they *cough cough* fell off the back of a lorry? Found free orchards behind a council estate in Stoke Newington and in the corner of a park in Ealing? Just got onto a bus for the hell of it and waited to see where it would leave you? Because that’s what living in London means to me. An opportunity to always find something new.

Or, stay within the center of the city, but look around the corners. Even Kensington itself is more multi-faceted than this article depicts. Notting Hill may be known to most Americans as that genteel little place from a horrible movie (sorry, I have something against Hugh Grant, it’s irrational but don’t try to convince me otherwise), but have you ever wondered why the West Indian carnival is there? Because in the middle of the last century, in a racist housing market, immigrants from the Caribbean who had little choice of where to live found one of the few places they were welcome – albeit in exchange for exorbitant rents for run-down, subdivided flats – was W11. Of course, Notting Hill is now too pricey for the vast majority of new arrivals, but the carnival is just one reminder of the movement of people around the city both within and throughout generations. 

When Lyall recalls a lost man in Soho who is fumbling with a map of Brussels, I wanted more. Because, well, I honestly don’t find anything interesting about someone’s experience of culture shock being that dry-cleaners don’t deliver to your door, or that you have to say “rubbish” instead of “trash.” Maybe the NYT editors were aiming for what they thought their average reader would identify with – though, to be honest, having almost never gotten delivery of anything in NYC, I found myself really not caring. London is an extraordinary place. Tell us an extraordinary story. 

I was hoping that when she said “geography is destiny,” we were going to be taken into a discussion of how London is growing increasingly polarized, how places like Kensington and Angel are far beyond the price range of the vast majority of native Londonders, but again, Lyall failed to elaborate. If you want to know how geography is destiny in London, I recommend reading Danny Dorling’s The 32 Stops, part of Penguin Books’ collaboration with Transport for London to publish 12 distinct books tied to the 12 lines of the London Underground. Dorling, a geographer at the University of Sheffield, writes accessibly and succinctly, using the stops on the Central Line to illustrate the extent of inequality in London. It is a quick read, but insightful and chock-full of information. The Central Line begins and ends in the suburbs, and through vignettes about imagined individuals and families, he paints tiny pictures of what matters in the lives of everyday Londoners. It is short, to-the-point, and most importantly it achieves its aim. You can borrow my copy.

Of course, this was just a short article in the travel section. It can’t go into massive detail. It’s not supposed to. And I can’t tell anybody how to experience a place. But I feel like piping up and saying that life in London is more vibrant and offers more experiences than the article might indicate. Strangely, the closest I felt to New York was in Golders Green, one of the few places in London with a visible Jewish presence. To me, it’s fascinating that despite their physical distance, I found commonality between the two cities I consider home in an ethnic enclave that resembled so much of the American counterpart. And I don’t care if the shops there don’t deliver, because the 210 bus that took me there and back crossed Hampstead Heath just fine, with a view to kill for from the front seat of the upper deck.


From “NW” by Zadie Smith

The view was cross-hatched. St. Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient fields, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. A man and a woman walked over and stood next to Natalie at the railing. Beautiful view, said the woman. She had a French accent. She didn’t sound at all convinced by what she’d said. After a minute the couple walked back down the hill.

Natalie Blake looked out and down. She tried to locate the house, somewhere back down that hill, west of here. Rows of identical red brick chimneys, stretching to the suburbs. The wind picked up, shaking the trees below.

She’s describing the view from Archway Bridge, Hornsey Lane. Also known as the suicide bridge. I never noticed the three swords and the crown, the banner of the old Middlesex County Council, on the side of it until a summer evening when I was running downhill from Highgate into Holloway so fast that I was afraid to even try slowing down because I knew I would only trip and fall. In the next chapter she talks about the market on the Kilburn High Road, and I know that when she mentions the pet shop she’s referring to the exact same one where I bought the cage and toys for my budgie Trevor. The old Woolworths and the McDonald’s and the shuttered Gaumont State Cinema are not some throwaway names just there to flesh out an idea of what a high road should look like – they are the places I used to shop, used to pass by all the time. It’s funny knowing that millions of people will read the same sentence in that book and not have the same mental image of the Kilburn High Road that I do. It all seems so clear, so salient to me. She is talking about X and I know X and if I went to X then I might walk right past one of these characters, and if I may be so bold as to inject a bit of dreamy narcissism, then maybe when X is going to Y then there’s somebody in the background who’s an awful lot like me because I used to be there. I’ve walked past stories like hers and not noticed because I was just trying to get to the bus stop. When you live someplace like London, someplace where Zadie Smith can describe that same view you used to have from your bedroom window when you hoisted yourself up onto the too-high ledge on your forearms, and you can remember it perfectly and know that she’s got it spot-on…well, you can’t just go quietly into something less, can you?

Why am I always so homesick? Because if I’m going to aim high then I’m going to aim for the very top. I call it ambition, not looking backward.

The view from Alexandra Palace, summer 2012:


My London: Science! (And snacks) (And lots of brackets (or parentheses))

I have promised Maren & Barrie a guide to all the horrible (used very loosely) things in London that I adore. I might as well put them up here. Why not? Instalment one: the weird and wonderful science of the capital encompassed in two lesser-known museums: The Wellcome Collection and the Hunterian Museum.

The Wellcome Collection occupies a huge frontage along the Euston Road – you can’t miss it, but it’s not particularly a tourist destination. This is a shame, because the curators there pull out some amazing ideas and find ways to make medical science accessible and relevant to the layperson. They say their general aim is to “explore what it means to be human,” and they definitely win all my prizes for public engagement.

A few years ago, I visited their exhibition of skeletons found underneath London, discovered during construction projects throughout the city. One of the locations was found to be a cemetery for prostitutes, who could not be buried near churches; another sat beneath a mint in the City of London proper. Pathologists were able to study these centuries-old remains and determine the most probable causes of death.  I learned that 1. untreated tuberculosis does horrible things to bones, 2. being buried beneath a mint that makes copper coins will stain teeth bright green, and 3. EVERYBODY IN 16th CENTURY LONDON HAD ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS (and also 4. “ankylosing spondylitis,” a type of spinal arthritis, is difficult to spell)

There’s now a Pizza Hut on the site in the southern suburbs where bodies from the old Merton Abbey were found. Welp.

Anyway, the Wellcome Trust also sponsors an annual photography award, highlighting the crossover between art and science that is so popular these days. These are not your boring high school textbook pictures – there are some truly amazing works created in the everyday work of scientists. These are caffeine crystals:

And now for something not completely different, but a bit more grisly. Tucked away behind the London School of Economics and the Royal Courts of Justice, there is a museum of unsightly pickled body parts. It’s the Hunterian Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons, and it’s brilliant.

(Photo from Londonist, because mere mortals are not allowed to take photos)

John Hunter, an 18th century doctor and eccentric collector of all things pathological, bequeathed his collection to the Royal College, where it is now on public display. A face with smallpox? Got it. All sorts of syphillitic tissues? Got them. Bones of an 8-week foetus? Yes. Tumors? All over the place. The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish giant? Got it, though in respect of his last wishes he may be buried at sea in the future. On the non-human side, they also have an exhibition of extinct animal remains, including a woolly mammoth. In total, the museum has over 3500 specimens, fossils, and drawings.

When I see a painting made centuries ago, with astonishing technique, I’m always amazed at how a person could possibly create something that looks so flawless. The same applies to anatomy and pathology – you can’t help but be amazed that from some basic chemical elements, humans have evolved such specialized organs. The specimens are simultaneously mundane in their familiarity and shocking in their dislocation. Where once they held life and performed specific functions, they’re now suspended and out of context and useless, essentially mere scaffolding. The human has been taken out of them, and just the basic structure remains. Disease and dysfunction aren’t too surprising, when you think of it – what’s amazing that more things don’t go wrong.

One thing to appreciate is how tastefully and soberly the exhibits are put together. This is not a circus sideshow. Everything is well-lit and minimalist in presentation. John Hunter himself wasn’t the most respectful of the people behind his specimens back in the 18th century – he knew very well Byrne didn’t want to be displayed after his death – but the Royal College of Surgeons has put together a top-notch collection of things you’ve probably never seen before, meaning You Will Learn Something. You’re not allowed to take any pictures, but you’re free to draw. This is obviously not a place for anybody with a weak stomach – there are lots of foetuses and faces – but if you can deal with it, the Hunterian is a fascinating place to visit off the beaten track.

If you have an appetite after this (dammit Kite, you’re morbid) and it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, wind your way down across the river to Borough Market, London’s food heaven. I used to go here on my lunch breaks when I worked nearby, and you can make a satisfying snack from samples alone. Along with food, there’s also kitchen stuff and flowers for sale. Hell, I once came back into the office with a tiny lime tree from Borough Market tucked under my arm, which I think made this guy who sat across from me and was pretty cool think I had utterly lost the plot. (Well, both that and the time he asked, “Does anybody have any food?” and I casually replied, “Yeah, I’ve got eels in the fridge,” because I did, and I’ll gladly share those slimy non-kosher bad boys.) That tree died pretty quickly, because citrus is meant to grow in Andalucia, not Archway. Anyway. Ostrich burgers? Yes. The old-school cart making bubble-and-squeak sandwiches? Bigger yes. If you’re looking for vegetables, don’t buy from the first few shops you see when you come in – the better values are likely to be found further inside. Also, there’s this one stand with a woman who makes amazing mushroom paté. Eat it. Buy a jar and eat it. Eat it all.


The Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Road  NW1 2BE

Opening: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM (open later Thursdays)

Admission: Free

Tube: Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street

Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons

35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE

Opening: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM.

Admission: Free, but suggested donation of £3

Tube: Holborn, Temple

Borough Market

Southwark Street at Borough High Street, SE1 1TL

Opening: Thursday-Saturday, hours vary (but go early)

Prices: Kind of up there, but the food is gooooood.

Tube: London Bridge

Now this is cool

See the Guardian’s interactive map of where bombs fell on London on the first night of the Blitz.

I love maps. I love London. Not so big a fan of war, but it’s important to know history, so here you go: Where bombs fell on London this day in 1940 – the first night of the Blitz.

The northernmost bomb hit Eade Road, off Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park. I would say that Eade Road still looks like a bomb site today, but…eh, it’s not that bad, just dull. Second northernmost hit just down the street from where I used to live in Holloway. Reckon they were aiming for the railways…

Today, Eade Road is home to the appropriately-named Low Profile House. Hurr hurrrrrr.