If you wanted to walk to the edge of London, where would you go? Head to those oddly named places at the end of the tube lines? There are places on the tube lines that don’t feel like London and places with no tube that are definitely London.
Where does London end then? I think that is a matter of a feeling, not a geographical mark. Suddenly everything is less changeable, varied and busy; there’s an energy missing, an energy that I find invigorating. I know many people find it as invigorating as noise from the neighbours all night and light pollution through their bedroom windows but I love it.
Recently, my sister moved to Dublin where she can see the mountains from the centre. Can see the edge. Can see a way out. To me, this means she’s not really a city person at all.
I like endless city all around me. If I tried to walk to the edge of London, North, South, East or West I would see so much; so many different people and styles of life. I would see ancient and modern; I would see shiny glass towers and grimy alleys. I would see sudden breezy parks and tired, claustrophobic housing estates. Most of all I would see the world.
If I walked to the western edge, starting from the plaque in Trafalgar Square recorded as the centre of London for map makers, keeping off fast moving major roads to byways of shops and dwellings, I would eventually come to Heathrow.
Let’s say I have time on my hands and money in my pockets. Neither true in real life but that tends to be a drawback of London life that we won’t dwell on here. I am at Heathrow; I jump on a plane. Where to doesn’t matter. Probably somewhere nice because I’ll be staying there a year.
Then the year is up, I head back. I walk back from Heathrow to Trafalgar Square. I won’t have changed much. Possibly I’m suntanned, depending on my choice of exile destination. Probably a little fatter as a year seldom goes by for me without a certain amount of layering. But London? It will be all different.
A church will be flats now; a cinema will be a mosque. A road will have traffic lights where there used to be a roundabout and a roundabout where there used to be accidents. A park will have new swings and flowerbeds will have appeared on a formerly scruffy high street. A dank building will have been sandblasted into glory and yet another glass tower will have shot up. A chain of supermarkets that used to dominate is now a different chain of supermarkets. Men who sold chestnuts from carts have disappeared, replaced by girls handing out free samples of yogurt drinks. The woman shouting obscenities outside the tube station will be the same woman but she’ll have a new coat and a higher piles of carrier bags in her shopping trolley. Most of all, as I walk back to Trafalgar square, I’ll be able to tell where there’s trouble in the world. The Albanians, Bulgarians, Bengalis, Chinese, Columbians, Eritreans, Iraqis, Iranians, Hungarians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Romanys, Somalis, Zimbabweans… The population of some immigrant groups will have increased and crowds of some new nationality will have appeared. They’ll open a new kind of shop; a new kind of restaurant. They’ll add another tone to the rich, endlessness of London.
I’ll have returned to find London changed and changing but one thing, the best thing, is the same. The world is here, new communities of it arriving, other communities moving to the edges.
If I walked to the edge of London and disappeared, even to the most luxurious tropical paradise, I’d start to pine in a matter of months. I’d miss the energy; the never knowing who you’ll see, where they’ll be from and what they’ll be doing.
The world pours in for special events like the Olympics but the world is here anyway. You might conduct some demented experiments trying to find the edges of London but the greatest thing about the city is that it has no limits. There will never be a point where someone says; “There, it’s finished now, that’s the shape and style of it.” London goes on forever, alive and changing.