‘Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
In London, you are never really alone. Not desert island alone. Not top of a mountain alone. Not even driving a car down a long straight road with the music blaring alone.
In my early city days I used to be continually amazed by it and say where did you all come from? multiple times a day. Say you go to a weekend market, OK, these are popular places, you jostle amongst legging-clad women and men sporting mohawks, maybe you have lunch with the crowd. Then you decide to move on. You take a bus or a tube to a park perhaps – it’s a sunny afternoon, but when you get there you are rather shocked because so are all the others. Hey guys! Where did you come from? This was my idea. Did you follow me here? At the start it surprised me, now, for the most part, I have come to accept it. Cities run on people. We are the red blood cells.
I am reminded of a line from a book of poems about school from way back, it went something like “everybody says our school is overcrowded, then why do I – in the middle of the playground – feel alone?” It was worded more eloquently, but that was the essence.
Sometimes outside is inside. Like right here: outside the Wireless festival arena in Hyde Park on a Friday night. The streaky clouds shine in the sun’s last stand. People too, glow, in small groups, as they listen to the dulled music, drinking on their own terms. (I can’t imagine this country without public drinking; what is more British than a beer, or a cider, or a Pimms in the park?) There are hundreds of people in my sight right now, yet I don’t feel crowded or cramped, but included. In a more cynical mood I might call it a collective grimace. We chose this, we say to one another with our eyes. We chose the city, we chose amenities over space, we chose to live breathing on one another, listening to one another, rubbing against each other every day. So what do we do? Dammit we make the best of it. We are spoilt for entertainment of course, that is what we are here in the city for, and when we tire of it we go sit in the park. We watch what we can see of the sun as it sets somewhere behind Edgware road and we smile. As sunsets go, sure it has nothing on an ocean horizon, but it is what we have here, now, and we embrace it.
It’s gone now, the sun. It will be dark soon. And darkness does confine us. Darkness is small. It puts boundaries up where before there were none. Yet still there is light. Always, in fact. It is true that you cannot see the sky at night, that planes are your only stars –
Twinkle twinkle easy jet
How I wonder what you are
– but this also holds us together. The glow of pollution keeps our faces lit even in the darkest hours. It is in these wee hours, when I might be walking home not long before tomorrow’s sun, that I am most surprised to share the streets. I walk down a tiny, leafy road in Chiswick and a man with his shirt untucked is walking unsteadily down the other side. His steps look strained; not so much that he’s enjoyed a truly wild night out but a little too much for him to be just tired after a night shift. Or crossing Battersea bridge at 4.45 am: I think to myself this time the bridge will be all mine, but it never is. There is always a black cab, or a souped up Polo, or a couple standing at the zenith looking out at the water instead of at each other.
Crowds can be claustrophobic; crowds can be lonely. But so can moors or deserts. In the words of Ben’s Brother:
What if life was a car
And you didn’t really know how to start it
Would you sit in your car like a clown
Or get out and walk to the nearest crowded bar?
And kiss a mouth, make it smile and be proud
That at least you had a good time for a while?