Six years on and, to my horror, I find that I am now a tourist in the city that I called home for the first thirty-eight years of my life. Actually I still call London home, but it doesn’t always feel very familiar, as I discovered this week on a work-related whistle-stop visit.
The sense of being a stranger in town began the minute I arrived. As I faffed about trying to top up my oyster card, it occurred to me that my ineptitude would have driven the London-living me completely insane if I’d witnessed it. Next I found that the tube map in my head – something I had always taken for granted – seemed to have been erased. No longer necessary I suppose; God knows the storage space in my brain is pretty limited, but if I’d had a choice, that’s something I might have kept. And then there is the city’s skyline which looks different on every visit – Strata one year, Heron Tower the next and now the Shard glinting in the heat haze.
But some things remain reassuringly familiar: namely the general scuzziness of South London (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, always a fan of a little bit of grot), and the key bus routes of my childhood. My heart always leaps a little at the sight of the 137, the 37 or the 88 which, for some reason I always think of as the original Clapham Omnibus (as in the man on the Clapham Omnibus).
And on Wednesday morning I was transported back to my teenage years when I caught the number 3 to Crystal Palace. I don’t think I’ve been on this route since I was about 18, but nothing has changed, and as the bus wound steadily up the final hill before pulling into the bus station, I was delighted by the sight of the Crystal Palace radio transmitter - surely London’s answer to the Eiffel Tower.
I was in Crystal Palace to meet up with my friend the photographer James Balston, to discuss some projects and to visit a remarkable subterranean home that he is photographing and I am writing about. Below is a tiny taste of what we saw and the rest I’ll post later when it’s been published. Incidentally, James has a lovely blog here, which is dedicated to life high on the hill in SE19.
Interview over, I hopped back on the number 3 and from the front seat on the top deck I enjoyed the show as we sailed back down the hill towards the West End via Herne Hill, Brockwell Park, Brixton, Kennington, Westminster, Trafalgar Square and then the grand finale – Regent Street festooned with bunting and Union Jacks.