Walking through London, especially close to a train station or even just a tube stop, you sense a diesel-and-cigarette quality to the air that lets you know straightaway you aren’t in California anymore. Even on a hot muggy day where the locals are boggling at temps over 30 in August, something about it suggests the gray haze of a London Particular, a psychogeographical climate phenomenon worthy of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd. It’s an air that suggests, as much as the weight of a pound coin in the hand or the sight of a black cab trundling up the left-hand side of the road, that you are Somewhere Else.
No grids anywhere, not even a little bit. The roads are tarmac over the cobbles over the dirt tracks that were pathed out hundreds or thousands of years ago. Our cabdriver said he took three and a half years to do the Knowledge, and I believe it, because learning the ins and outs of the London streets is far tougher than the mere nooks and crannies of the human cranium. Citymapper is an indispensable app, the 21st century answer to the old London A To Z, the only way of plotting the easiest route from here to there – and the amazing thing with the Tube is that you never have longer than a two or three minute wait and you never seem to have to make more than one change or go more than four or five stops per segment to get most anywhere. If you can set aside the warmth in the hottest week of the year in an unconditioned set of tunnels, it’s damn near teleportation.
Because it’s the only way to go fast. Even with the congestion charge, a bus sits in the traffic for twice as long as the Underground takes to go the same distance (not to deny the pleasure of the view from the front seats of the upper deck of the old Routemasters). Walking takes forever – the psychic density from point A to point B is even greater than in San Francisco or Manhattan; there’s so much stuff that it takes twice as long or more as the same distance on a flat track would. And then there’s the mystical quality of going under a bridge and seeing the front of a public house, almost like something that wouldn’t have appeared if you’d approached from the other side or failed to describe a figure 8 through the overpass before coming to the door. Ackroyd and Gaiman were right: there are pockets of lost time in London, places that have moved more slowly or more quickly. The top of the Shard is a seventy-story garden party from some oligarchian future, just as the streets from Kings’ Cross up towards Camden Lock have only slowly drifted from Victorian toward early-Thatcher.
It felt far less alien this time. No more stooging into an Internet cafe to keep up with friends or ducking into every cellphone shop to marvel at the things that hadn’t reached America yet, if ever: the iPhone SE in my pocket was the best phone available on this continent or theirs and the SIM and service could have been as easily acquired from a vending machine as from the airport kiosk we used. (For the record, 10.5 GB of data for a month, for EACH of us, set us back all of $65 prepaid – easily half what we’d pay AT&T in the US for even less data. Prepaid only in future for me.) We could walk around checking Slack and posting to Instagram just as we would in the States, with the only difference being that GMT rather than PDT allows you to tell the order in which your friends wake up and look at their phones. Transit is a doddle; the trains work like BART or DC Metro and the buses work like VTA or anywhere, really. Only the TV experience was still a little alien: turn on the set in the hotel and be presented with an Apple TV-esque grid where every channel is A Channel rather than a series of local affiliates. BBC London is just something that cuts in on the regular BBC One news.
Well, that and the trains. A day trip to Cambridge was only marginally more complicated than a Caltrain ticket from San Jose to San Francisco, and about as fast. This is what comes of a country that builds a national rail infrastructure decades before the internal-combustion automobile even exists – and then sticks with it through the years. It also doesn’t hurt that the isle of Britain is about the size of California. Brexit notwithstanding, it’s hard not to get a sense that part of the American dysfunction is that we’ve scaled beyond what works for a contemporary nation-state.
I didn’t make it to a single service of any kind. There was always Evensong somewhere in 2007, but this time I only ever set foot in one college chapel once – I don’t know what profound statement that makes, but that’s how it went down. Although I still maintain that I might be Anglican in a very ‘religious but not the least bit spiritual’ sort of way. On the other side of my religious pursuits, there was football – of the second division variety. Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham FC, sits right on the river and looks to be the English spiritual cousin of Fenway Park: a century old and largely not upgraded. We were sat on the original wooden seats in front of a row of old age pensioners, drinking Bovril on a dreary gray summer afternoon – far closer to the real traditional English football experience than the modern NFL-ized Premier League.
And then there was the water. We spent a surprising amount of time on it – whether a commuter boat on the Thames, a punt on the river Cam with someone else pushing the pole while I sipped my plastic-cup pint, or a classic canal boat going between Little Venice and Camden Lock. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but the presence of moving water has somehow become what coffee was for me in the NGS days: calming, civilizing, guaranteed to ameliorate the mood. There were crowds stood outside pubs every day – probably for the heat, as no place in Britain seems to be air-conditioned enough even if they have it. I don’t recall seeing that before. I also don’t recall the complete absence of urinal dividers (odd when every toilet is in its own closet). I dimly recall the greater prevalence of suits, in lighter shades of blue than the United States finds acceptable in the modern workplace. I was reminded just how few public trash receptacles there are – and not nearly as many recycling bins as in California or even Birmingham.
One other thing I don’t remember noticing – maybe my ear wasn’t attuned to it, maybe we spent more time outside London, who knows – was the proliferation of accents that weren’t British. You could start to see how a certain sort of Englishman would begin to lash back (and how his American counterpart wouldn’t last a day in NorCal). And yet, even the pro-Brexit cabbie thought Donald Trump was the express ticket to World War Three, which shows you just how far beyond the pale we’ve gotten here.
The line more than once has been ‘we need to stop going to London unless we’re just going to move there.’ We couldn’t afford to, any more than we could afford to go up to the city from here, or to New York or Tokyo. But if we could…pervasive transit, half pints in a pub on every corner, politics without holy rollers and the promise of a clean escape from college football and its discontents?
Maybe it wouldn’t be any better, but I’d love to make them prove it.