Letter from London: Long Night’s Journey into the Past

London at night, photographed from the International Space Station by International Space Station, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren.

When it rains at night there is always a distinctive dripping sound coming from beneath the eaves as the water hits the bedroom window ledge below. The fact there is a bird’s nest seems secondary as this is so silent and snugly self-contained as to be invisible. I also love the resonance of rain hissing from the rubber tyres of the vehicles at the front of the building. This is as cars zip from the busy roundabout and race towards the heath. There is always something cinematic about vehicles in the rain, especially with the windscreen wipers going. A recent example of this is at the beginning of Santiago Mitre’s ‘Argentina, 1985’. When I watch from the kitchen window, I am oddly comforted by the dreamlike quality such scenes evoke. In the bedroom meanwhile there is the sound of foxes starting up in a neighbouring back garden. It is a peculiar noise they make, not unlike dogs learning how to bark, though I have long been an admirer of our many urban foxes as I always feel them essentially undying. People say I wouldn’t feel so inclined if I was a farmer. Well, I am not a farmer, I like to tell them. There is also the small matter of the leak in the bathroom roof, which, despite many efforts, will not seem to go away. When it rains like this we have various receptacles about the place, rather like the containers put out by Brendan Gleason’s Frank in ’28 Days Later’.

My mind is at its most lucid in the middle of the night. I had two operations recently and though pretty much recovered, it does get one thinking. For what it’s worth, I go to bed early these days and often wake around two or three in the morning like this. I haven’t drunk alcohol for six and a half years and I don’t smoke. I am running every two days and try most days to walk at least four miles. Had I met myself ten years or so ago I would have privately yawned. In fact, there was a time when the city for me would be at its most interesting this time of night. Perhaps it still is. After one particularly intense trip abroad, I remember few things more resuscitating than central London when it was buzzing like a stickler’s hive. It was as if mainstream media, or government, or whatever, even tomfoolery, had all slipped off to bed, and it was now left for the true mischief makers to crack their knuckles in preparation for good conversation.

I have been thinking about when I first came to London. My earliest memory of the city was when I was 11 years old. This was after travelling by train from Scotland with my aunt who had booked us both rooms in a hotel near Gloucester Road. The nearby streets were full, I seem to remember, of men with moustaches and short-length coats. There were lots of women wearing mid-calf boots. I had no idea I would end up living only a few hundred meters away, some ten or so years later. This was when I rented a small room in a large square where every day it would baffle me that the city could function at all, especially with so many disparate lives to fulfil. It was like the entire capital was stitched together by loneliness — an idea successfully promulgated by Olivia Laing in ‘The Lonely City’ in 2016 about New York.

All I remember of the hotel was a guest, possibly Swedish, with so-called nits, or head lice, scratching her way to scalp oblivion, while watching TV in the guest sitting room. (Was it Jimi Hendrix on ‘Top of the Pops’ or even Frankie Howard on ‘Up Pompeii’?) I was so impressed by the fact this woman was unconcerned by anyone else. Nits are not a serious problem but they are difficult to get rid of. It was only years later as a London parent that I truly came to terms with them. It is reckoned that 68 per cent of British families with children of school age have had to deal with nits. Among children aged 3 and 11, between 6 to 12 million ‘infestations’ occur each year in the US — I guess no one actually counts them all. A distracted globe, indeed.

Despite films like ‘Where Eagles Dare’ showing not so far away, it was to the theatre we went most nights. After each play, I enjoyed trying to analyse the various plots with my aunt, though I would have struggled with general topics of the day such as the recent North Vietnamese invasion of eastern Cambodia to assist the Khmer Rouge. I had only been to the pantomime or ‘The Gang Show’ at the King’s Theatre and Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh before. My regular visits to see Molière, long favoured by the Scots, came later. London theatre was in another league, as I am sure it still is for those who can afford it, or indeed for the theatres still open. I see Hampstead theatre recently lost funding. There has been a loss of grant money for Donmar Warehouse, reportedly down by more than £500,000, and the Stockroom and the Gate, only marginally less so. One night with my aunt we saw Eileen Atkins in Robert Bolt’s ‘Vivat Vivat Regina!’ at a packed Piccadilly Theatre. On another, ‘The Winslow Boy’. There were no lingering fears of Covid, nor tickets too expensive. London did on one occasion manage to feel quite small. This was after I heard my Scottish headteacher’s voice behind me, playfully bossing the queue outside the Planetarium on Marylebone Road. But, at the end of the day, if the trip to exciting London had been meant to cheer me up, it did that. ‘We have to go,’ I told all my friends, once I was back in Scotland: ‘It’s amazing! Everything happens at once!’

The wind outside is beginning to pick up. It is an evocative sound along with the rain. My next visit to London, I am remembering, was more left-field. This came after attending a free festival at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire during one Summer Solstice. I was seventeen at the time and had only been to a free festival at Windsor the year before, the one broken up by police. I spent a lot of time at Stonehenge standing by a campfire staring up at a welter of stars, or laying down in a small tent pretending to compute the relationship between the famous standing stones and the universe. I had by then teamed up with a woman a few years older than me who helped me with some of these computations. After the festival I came to stay with her in Herne Hill in South London and must have spent nearly a month there. London was such a mystery to me. It was all very hot, though not as hot as the following year. People were often visible on the streets while striking with badly made placards. Inside my friend’s room, when not listening her rare copy of Robert Hunter’s ‘Tales of the Great Rum Runners’, Richard Nixon’s impeachment process was taking shape on TV. I only got to know Herne Hill again quite recently, and like many areas of London with former council properties and long terraced streets, it had become gentrified. (Not much social housing left, in other words.) My friend worked as a trainee at the BBC. She would go off to work each day at Broadcasting House and I would sit at her small desk writing poetry, a suitably warm wind blowing through the open window. In retrospect, it was life I was trying to understand, not the iambic pentameter, though I would be at a genuine deficit five or so years later in London when I lost just about every single poem I had ever written between the ages of 16 and 21. This was in about 28 books.

London can be a harsh teacher. One day my Herne Hill friend and I visited some wealthy friends of hers in South Kensington. They were all taking heroin. This freaked me out terribly, especially as someone had tried to slip me some pretending it was something else. I was livid, though much younger than the rest, and knew I had to leave. I had spent the past year with people courageous in thought — the kind who cared about articulation, self-sufficiency, difficult questions. This South Kensington lot seemed to spit in the face of them. I did invite my friend to join me in Scotland but was not surprised when she chose to stay. During the 1970s most UK heroin users were London-based. As a welcome footnote, though, I did see my friend a dozen or so years later and she seemed pretty happy. I was back in London from the Middle East and she had found out I was in need of a place to stay. She insisted I use her flat in Hampstead, while she stayed with her boyfriend, a kind and successful writer. I had left Herne Hill for Hendon after that fateful night in South Ken to begin hitching back to Scotland. I made it in just under 12 hours, but with my tail between my legs. I didn’t know what to make of London anymore. Ironically, of course, Edinburgh was about to become a heroin capital itself.

There is a slight increase of traffic outside. The working day is fast approaching. I am warm in my bed. My next London trips were on the increase too, sometimes to stay with a friend with a flat in Chiswick which he shared with his girlfriend. The world seemed far less idealistic. This was before the lumbering Yuppie and giant mobile phone. I had been living in Italy with two close friends where I am afraid to say light and friendship had interested me more than possessions. I was working from time to time as a stage-hand at the aforementioned Kings Theatre, then briefly as a ward orderly at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. I was only in London because I didn’t know what to do with my life, the reason many people were in London, I began to realise. I wasn’t even writing much poetry anymore. It was only after meeting someone I liked from southern England that I properly rediscovered the place. Hers was a neat version full of post-punk bands and polished Doc Martens (shoes not boots) and people who went to Cambridge who took the Mirror. I began to see bands as the way ahead and also as a route for me back to verse. But then I saw what was happening in Afghanistan…

I have to say I returned from there muddled and distracted, hoping the city would sort me out again. I had a fair amount of Super-8 footage of the mujahideen in action but quickly realised while talking to at least one government official that I knew a whole lot more about the Soviet occupation than they did, and this did not reassure me. I was a little fish. I was living by now in a former timber warehouse near Clapham Junction, with a small rehearsal space across the yard in which songwriter Rolo McGinty successfully honed his band The Woodentops. There were a number of artists living there, including dedicated Hastings-born collage artist at the time Tony Reason. The property was owned by two gifted sisters, Mooie and Panni Charrington, as they were known at the time, the former an abstract-spiritualistic painter with great insight, the latter an exciting adventurer and genuinely inventive photographer. Australians and Canadians lived below, including director and producer Gregg Masuak. I loved it there, but was restless, and probably remained disturbed or fragmentary from my inconclusive experiences abroad. I threw parties — with people like the Grey Organisation attending — but was still frustrated or disheartened. As a result, I left for New York, where I would go on to spend five extraordinary years, with only one real interlude in West Hollywood where I wrote a play. The only time I came back to London during this time was to renew my visa. Other times I would simply go to Canada or the Bahamas for this. It sat only like a sentry at the gates to my past. But I did have one dear friend in London with a tiny flat on Fitzroy Square situated directly above a bank at the time. My friend was away one time — perhaps in Milan — and it was while sitting in his bath in the kitchen one day on a rare visit to London that my love of London returned, everything suddenly charmingly absurd and eccentric. I enjoyed catching up with an old Lebanese friend with a gallery on Old Burlington Street, not so far from the tailors of Saville Row and the famous rooftop where The Beatles twenty years earlier had played. My interest had been re-piqued.

As a result of this epiphany, I returned to London to stay two or three months later, in the firm but sensationalist belief that Europe had become the most important place on the planet again. As I saw it, all manner of democracies were linking up in such a way that peace could be ensured for evermore. Everyone my age had a far more positive attitude towards the continent than their parents did. Even the traditionally conservative money boys and girls in the City of London seemed excited at the easing of nationalist instinct. It certainly appeared tailor-made for a Northumbrian-born Scottish Dane with a German surname.

Though still sofa-hopping, I spent much of my time seeing old friends and making new ones, while occasionally writing features for the Evening Standard, Mail on Sunday, or Scotsman. (Only later, during the Balkan War, did I get something in the Guardian.) I found London so engaging. My New Yorker friend had a flat in Knightsbridge and I crashed there sometimes. I remember the two of us finding black and white photographs inserted at the back of one of the drawers. They were of two women looking remarkably like Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. In fact, everywhere reeked of potential narratives. Closer to Soho, where most of my friends gathered, a schoolteacher I knew offered me his flat for the summer. (He was almost speechless ten or so years later when I insisted he accept money for this.) I suppose I had the best of both worlds, satisfying both a naturally nomadic spirit at the same time as fortifying important friendship. It was during this time for example I was lucky enough to see a lot of the piper, now writer as well, Antoin Doherty. He came from a large and talented family in Donegal and helped greatly with my attempts at reacclimatisation, the sound of his pipes often stirring deep within me. Though I would visit Germany a few times, I was for the most part parked in central London, a kind of sudden fixture. It was after I met the artist that I gave up any remaining thought of returning to New York.

London in the 1990s was extraordinary. Conservatives gave way to New Labour, and IRA campaigns to the Good Friday Agreement. (Last week’s talks with James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, and Northern Ireland party leaders over Brexit were considered by some utter chaos.) The Docklands, previously bombed, shot up again. The face of the city changed immeasurably. Up came the Dome and London Eye, in time for the new millennium. Artists were at the forefront. By 2000, the place had been transformed. But it was all just money, money, money. Furthermore, the artist had introduced me to a part of south-east London which had opened up a brand new dimension of the capital to me. It felt less elitist and more in touch with reality south of the river, more so than in trendier spots such as Shoreditch, where the artist had an exhibition. I wouldn’t say south-east London was more Dickensian than north of the river, as many parts of the city entertained every type of circumstance, but it was full of loveable rogues. I was genuinely moved when one local figure left a note when he died asking me to read Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ at his funeral. I also recall one of the attendees combing his own nostril hairs while I did so.

I sleep with no curtains. All I can see from the bed is 100 per cent sky. (No one can see in.) Light pollution ensures even the dark clouds are seen in detail as they pass by at speed. These ones in my line of sight right now are coming from Europe. How the vibe in London has changed. It is not even considered the financial centre of Europe anymore. Many Europeans have returned to their homelands. The drawbridge is up in this country, except for those willing to take the sometimes tragic plunge from across the Channel. Even London primary schools are suffering because of shrinking numbers caused by Brexit, a falling birth rate on top of that, and Covid having lured people to relative countryside. Those of us still here bunker down each month for our next energy bills. The adjusted operating profit for British Gas owner Centrica for the first six months of 2022 rose to 1.34 billion pounds, and yet everyone is still saying it is all Putin’s fault. The price of gas and electricity for this place, I should probably add, has just doubled. Again. To be fair, it is expected to dip in July, but this will be too late for many.

Right. The sun is up. Daylight. I hear a siren.

Peter Bach lives in London.