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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Can't see the love for the hate

Here's a confession that'd get me expelled from any gathering of psychogeographers and academics: I can't stand London.
No, let me rephrase that. I hate London with a rage so intense it would shake the city to its foundations if I could tap its energy in seismic form.
It's not an urban thing. I love Mexico City with an equal passion; I tell my students that if you put your ear to the pavement you can hear its heart beating. The same goes for San Salvador and not just because it's where I first set eyes on the sultry shape and form of Maria Ines de la Cruz. I've spent many hours difting through the streets and suburbs of both cities, usually without aim but occasionally with a purpose, such as the evening I traversed downtown San Salvador and circuited the bohemian Colonia Centroamerica in search of the city's elusive gay nightlife - a sort of queer derive (there is, as a matter of fact, a 'strip' but you'd be hard-pressed to find it. And if you're a gay woman you're going to be very disappointed).
From the queer derive to the theological derive. Several years ago, whilst doing fieldwork for an MSc in Latin American politics, I spent the best part of a month criss-crossing San Salvador interviewing nuns and other religious leaders; a quest which took me to parts of the city rational enquiry couldn't reach. Even two bungled muggings - and they were shamefully amateur attempts - failed to douse my ardour; if anything the sense of danger they evoked only made the place more attractive.
I've been mugged in London too, as it happens; another botched job, in 1999, in Stratford, before the Olympics and urban regeneration were even a twinkle in Boris and Ken's eyes. I spent the best part of three years living in what might euphemistically be called the 'East End' but didn't really have the feel of the mythical East End. What I remember most about my time amonsgt the fun-loving criminals of what will surely, one day, be sanitised by the heritage industry then repackaged and resold as 'Kray Country', was my landlord and his partner dragging us along to Benjy's 2000 on the Mile End Road.
'Nuff said!
But the truth - perhaps the sad truth - is that whenever funds permitted I fled the city and sought refuge in the rolling hills of Dorset or the brights lights of Weymouth. I was like a woman on the run, though pursued by what I still don't know. 
As an itinerant tutor I have cause to visit London once or twice a year and, last month, on as part of journey entirely by rail (apart from the Dover-Calais ferry) from Bristol to Malaga, I crossed the city from Paddington to London Bridge in the early hours of the morning. Still the anger was there, still my mood shifted rapidly through the emotional gears until it was working at full-tilt outright hatred when I arrived at the phallic landscape of The City, just as dawn was breaking, cold and windy. I hate The Shard, I hate The Gherkin, I hate the Canary Wharf Tower - sorry 'One Canada Square', talk about unashamed, unadulterated conceit. 
From the monarchist nonsense of Buckingham Palace, the imperialist pomposity of Whitehall to the looming bulk of Thames House which is all eyes, eyes, eyes over those who pass beneath its ugly facade, all I see are the overblown relics of a failed state trying desperately to cling on to its faded glories. Does anyone still believe this hubris? London doesn't just take itself far too seriously, it demands those who visit it do so too; insists they pay homage at its shrines.
Too arrogant, too regular; too hard and angular. And too Protestant, aesthetically-speaking, at least. London, to me, lacks the curves and the kitsch of a Catholic city. It doesn't yield and I find myself stuck between a nook and a hard place.
I've probably got it all wrong, spend too much time seething and looking at the city through my own, probably gender-obsessed lens. I should just lie back and think of London, bask in its undoubted commitment to and belief in the personal and social tenets I hold dear: multiculturalism and diversity.
At about three o'clock in the morning I'm in the heart of The City, approaching Cannon Street Station (this, to me, the heart of the evil empire). I'm trying to remember the lines of The Wasteland; trying to conjure up TS Eliot's Unreal City:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. 
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

Trying, also, to roll back the years to 1999 when I spent the best part of a year working in the head office of a major, multinational investment bank to fund my postgraduate studies which were increasinglt focusing on liberation and feminist theology. 
Talk about selling your soul to the devil.
For reasons I still don't understand I was trying hard to retrace my route from Mansion House station to my former place of work and getting increasingly frustrated. Then, in the midst of all this turmoil, an angel, of sorts, appears. He is driving a red London bus, a regular service, and has pulled up at a red light. He opens the door and asks whether I'm okay, whether I'm lost; tells me to hop on board and he'll drop me off somewhere more safe and suitable at this time of night. 
HIs isn't the only act of kindness I experience during those short, madragudal hours and I hate myself for hating the city so much. And I know full well that when I get to Paris Gare du Nord in a few hours time, and take a stroll across the city to Austerlitz, I'll love each and every square metre of the French capital, and for the very same reasons I hate the English one.
London. Can someone turn my hate into love?

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