That’s weird, since I’ve lived around London for most of my life. I studied in the City. I commuted into the West End, City and along the Embankment for years. I used to love popping into London for an evening out, lining up the kitschiest of cocktails or spending a fortune on theatre tickets and a bite to eat at some anonymous hole where they couldn’t care less if they ever saw you again. I knew secret parking places you could depend on; I used to mooch around Selfridges all day, eat my lunch in Grosvenor Square and swing by Seven Dials just to visit a favourite shop. That was when I could drive the 18 miles or so in a little over a half-hour. Now the journey time has doubled whatever the time of day, the Congestion Charge adds an extra weekday burden, the secret parking places aren’t secret any more and it costs a small mortgage to leave your car anywhere for even an hour or two. That means travel is mainly by London Underground, which is (IMHO) a loathsome experience (even though I’ll admit that both the service and stations have much improved in recent years).
But here’s the problem. I’m an introvert and my introversion has grown more entrenched as the years have gone by. Crowds, bustle and noise discomfort me now more than they ever used to. So those delightful hours spent meeting up with an old friend came with a few… irritants:
- The passengers who wanted the whole carriage to share their conversations – their voices screeching and yabbering high up the decibel scale; a relentless, ear-grinding counterpoint to the rattle-and-hum of the train on the tracks.
- The blast of sooty air whooshing out of the tunnel as the train departed. It’s a challenge, getting grit in your eye when you won’t touch your face before you can sanitise your hands.
- The crowds piling into and around Leicester Square ticket hall… milling, meandering, dawdling, oblivious.
- Tourists. The sort who stop suddenly on a busy street to take a photograph of their pals against the impressive cultural backdrop of… a branded restaurant chain. And the ones wielding giant backpacks, who swing about, clouting, bumping and squashing the unfortunates around them.
- The vile individual, gobbing gelatinous spittle on to the pavement just feet ahead.
- The delicious lunch. Yes, are you surprised? But tasty though it was, it bore a toxic bacterial payload. It has left me with – I’ll put it delicately – tummy trouble for the last two days, confining me to within an easily reachable distance of… oh, you know the rest.
- The smallest and narrowest of restaurant toilet cubicles, the sort where you have to squat on the sanitary bin (ladies, you know of what I speak, don’t you?) and then practically climb into the toilet to open the door.
- Wetness everywhere in the Ladies room. Soapy basins, water and residue everywhere. Nothing, but nothing, is dry. There is nowhere to rest a handbag. So you grapple with it as you wash your hands, only to find there are… no towels.
- Another vile individual, delivering a volley of snorty, snot-laden sneezes into homebound Tube carriage. Enough already. I changed carriages.
- The man who sat beside me in that second carriage, his legs in that dominant spread-apart pose that men love to adopt and women hate to witness. For thirty minutes his thigh jogged against mine as he shot at people’s heads on his mobile.
You’ll tell me I’m intolerant and cantankerous and when it comes to public transport and crowded places, I’m a bit of a clean-freak. And I confess, you’d be right on all counts.
London is one of the world’s finest and most fascinating cities – and I know I’m fortunate to live within its environs. I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from visiting and taking in its rich heritage and culture, vibrant nightlife and spectacular retail opportunities. But this amazing, extraordinary city – with all its crowds and bustle, and its dirt and grime – does tend to bring out the worst in me.