On London

I love London. It’s such a stunningly beautiful city, a fact I was reminded of the other evening while sitting on top of Primrose Hill at sunset. It was my wife’s birthday and we had eaten dinner at Trojka, a Russian restaurant nearby, and then walked up to the top of the hill in the cool, late dusk. From the top ofPrimrose Hill, you have a panoramic view of the city. It can be alarming at first, because right in front of your nose is that hideous spark plug of a building, the BT Tower. But further east, you can see the London Eye, the Gherkin, the majestic dome of St. Paul’s, a bit closer is the new Arsenal stadium, and further east is Canary Wharf. If you look very closely, you can see the tiered steeple ofSt. Bride’s Church, which is where whoever got the idea for the layered wedding cake got the idea for the layered wedding cake. The beauty of this scene was enhanced by the regular appearance of a rubber chicken, which made a brief arc across my line of vision before disappearing again.

It was a guy walking his dog. He was crouched on the grass, just over the lip of the hill so that I couldn’t see him or his dog from where I was sitting. But he was playing a game of fetch with his dog, and every time he tossed that rubber chicken into the air it rose briefly into view before disappearing below the horizon line. I only had a glimpse of it each time; chickens really can’t fly that far. But it truly was a thing of beauty, that gangly, pimply, yellow, featherless projectile. I followed its brief flight eagerly, then turned my attention back to the lovely view. And the lampposts. The lampposts on Primrose Hill are some of the loveliest lampposts I’ve ever seen. Especially when you’re walking uphill and there’s no one at the top, and all you can see at the summit are the silhouettes of those elegant London lampposts etched against the pink-streaked sky. I love London.

London always reminds me of a brain. It is similarly convoluted and circuitous. A lot of cities, especially American ones like New York and Chicago, are laid out in straight lines. Like the circuits on computer chips, there are a lot of right angles in cities like this. But London is a glorious mess. It evolved from a score or so of distinct villages, that merged and meshed as their boundaries enlarged. As a result, London is a labyrinth, full of turnings and twistings just like a brain. Its intelligence is distributed, too, like a brain’s. Each of these little villages—Primrose Hill, Highgate, Clapham, the City—has its own specializations and expertise. They are self-sufficient, even as they are inextricably and essentially part of the whole metropolis. It’s easy to get lost in London, something that probably has as much to do with my poor sense of direction as with the intricacies of the urban layout. Because it’s like a brain, London has loads of folds and crevasses that you’re always falling into unexpectedly. Until last week, I never knew there was a deer park in the western part of Hampstead Heath. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t gotten briefly lost while out for a run on the Heath. London is so rich, so twisted, it always has something new to show you. There’s always something you didn’t know about it. Samuel Johnson, who lived across the street from St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, was certainly right when he wrote his famous aphorism about London:

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

But I also like what Henry James, an American who lived in and loved the city, had to say about the place, even though it doesn’t really qualify as an aphorism:

It is difficult to speak adequately, or justly, of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.