Three Cities

I like peace and quiet and my own company.  If I could live anywhere, given a working Internet connection, it would be near mountains and water and at least half an hour’s walk from the nearest house. Since that’s not an option for my partner’s work, we live half an hour from the centre of London.

I’ve never seen the point of halfway houses, except as an overnight stop on a journey. When it comes to choosing a place to live, I like extremes. So if one has to live in a city, with all the noise and mess and otherness that entails, why settle for the second or third city? The capital has more of everything than any other city: more noise, mess and otherness, but also more variety, history, culture, excitement and interest. And besides, opposites do tend to attract, and London is opposite to everything I’ve ever known. That’s probably why I fell in love with it on my first visit.

It wasn’t love at first sight, although it was thrilling. When I came down to London from a small town in the industrial North-West, a teenager too geeky, plain and sanctimonious for the era, but up for anything new and exciting, Euston Station’s iconic arch had already gone. The gateway to the capital led through a series of uninspiring concrete boxes, but nothing could dim the excitement. The Telecom Tower gave my first view of London’s skyline a Supermarionation feel, the Sixties were in full swing and a whole world of galleries, museums, libraries, pubs, clubs, parks and shops was waiting for me to explore. I’d just get on any bus and get off somewhere that looked interesting – and there was always somewhere that looked interesting. Or I’d walk for miles, exploring the City on Sundays when I could be alone with the ghosts of my history lessons, getting up at five a.m. to catch the first Tube into town and walk round Westminster in the early summer sunshine. No, it wasn’t love at first sight, but who wouldn’t want to be friends when one of the most fascinating places on the planet was so willing to share its secret charms?

So love takes us by surprise. For me it happened after a party in a fifteenth-century house in one of those pretty stockbroker villages people’s fathers commuted from. We were walking home from Waterloo, having talked our way onto the milk train from East Grinstead, and coming across the wooden footway tacked onto the side of the railway tracks on Hungerford Bridge. I looked to my right, and there was the whole sweep of the Thames down to the City and out towards the docks, with the sun rising and the dome of Saint Paul’s set against a perfect dawn. I turned the other way, and beyond the lattice of the railings designed to keep us off the tracks I could see Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, scraps of metal on the roofs shooting the first rays of the sun into tatters of fluffy cloud.

At first I thought my heart had stopped. Then I realised it was simply, completely, at rest. It was as if something had hit me deep in the pit of my stomach and turned me inside out, then put me back again with everything in its proper order. I had fallen in love, deeply and forever, not with a collection of stone and frippery, but with a place whose every particle vibrated with the hopes and dreams and terrors and mundane realities of two thousand years and millions of lives. I had come home.

The first time is always the one you remember most vividly, but two other cities have claimed my heart in the same way since. I knew Paris before I’d even met London. The French order of nuns that ran my convent school in Liverpool had a house there, and another in Bruges, and took groups of girls over to the Continent every summer to work on our French. I didn’t really fall for Paris, though, until I went there with a student theatre company, touring Macbeth around French youth centres. I designed the costumes and was in charge of wardrobe maintenance, but the director decided that since I was the only company member shorter than the girl playing Lady Macduff, I might as well play her son. So I cross-dressed my way around France as a tenth-century Scot, dying onstage several nights a week, having brief encounters and traumatic partings with cheap French wines and skinny, intense boys, and falling in love with Paris over the week we spent there.

There were no boys in Paris who could compare with François Villon, my favourite mediaeval French poet, and mad, bad, utterly self-centred Peter Abelard, and the artists in the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume. When I wasn’t acting, rehearsing or fixing braid back onto costumes damaged in the dangerously realistic onstage fights that were proving so popular with the French youth club audience, I walked the streets in a daze, seeing history and magic everywhere, exploring alleys and galleries and the banks of the Seine. On our last morning, as we piled onto the bus at six a.m. on the first leg of our long run down to Nice and Narbonne, not even the thought of performing next day in Bourges could console me for the end of my holiday romance. Happily, I was to find that on the return journey Paris was still there, unchanged and ready to pick up where we left off. No wonder there were no boys who could compare. They just didn’t have that kind of staying power.

I was much, much older when I first went to Tokyo. I went with my partner, and so I fell in love with the city twice, for myself and through his eyes. We’d talked about going to Japan for several years – we had an American friend living just outside Tokyo, and a couple of British friends who had married Japanese women and settled there – but the time and the money to make the trip never coincided. Then, in 1997, I got the chance to interview a director I was writing about, providing I could be at his studio on the one day when he had a window in his schedule, three weeks ahead.

The whole thing was arranged in a blur of frantic activity. The journey was problematic – my partner has a back problem and doesn’t tolerate air travel well. The flights were the only ones we could get at short notice, and the timing meant that I had a six hour window between our touchdown in Tokyo and my appointment. We had to get through Customs and Immigration, into Tokyo, and on the Metro to Harajuku where we were staying with friends. Then I had to shower, change, leave my partner alone in a strange city and head out to the suburbs where the director’s studio and private office were located.

Japan’s legendary efficiency proved no legend; it wrapped around us like a comforting blanket from the moment we stepped off the plane. We flew out of Heathrow, an airport which had, at the time, a deservedly bad reputation. Arriving at an airport where the floors are cleaner than most restaurant plates, where signs are multilingual and clear and plentiful, where you only have to hesitate for a few seconds and someone approaches to find out what’s wrong, felt like disembarking in fairyland. The formalities went quickly and smoothly, and in less than an hour we were heading for the train to Tokyo and saw our first airport vendor. My partner was exhausted after a particularly uncomfortable flight, but as he took in the little stall with its racks of magazines and sweets and the rounded, perky font of the ‘Let’s Kiosk!” sign, he relaxed and smiled.

You could say I fell in love with Japan for its nurturing qualities. In Tokyo, these manifested in a different way. Racing through the turnstiles at Harajuku station three hours later, showered and clutching my handbag with my notebook, recorder, tapes, batteries and the fax giving directions to my destination, I was gut-wrenchingly nervous about the coming interview. Then I saw the guy coming through the turnstile alongside, a young god from a chambara fetish movie heading out of the station. A face that fused samurai and supermodel, all high cheekbones and long eyes and perfect, luscious fuschia lips, was framed by a high-swept topknot and a tail of hair hanging down to the white rubber obi around his shiny black PVC yukata.

Later I learned that was normal, or at least Harajuku-normal, but I had never seen anything so beautiful, or so completely unexpected, at a station turnstile. I simply forgot to be nervous. I arrived at my destination in good time, my supposedly reclusive host was charming and fascinating, and the interview went perfectly. When I got back to Harajuku for dinner with our friends and a long-awaited sleep, my partner had a list of places I had to see next day. He’d spent the whole afternoon wandering  the area, navigating a strange city, currency and language with no difficulty that couldn’t be resolved with goodwill and the point-and-mug communication method. His back pain was forgotten and he couldn’t wait to introduce me to custard pizza.

Tokyo embraced both of us in its ring of quark, strangeness and charm. We’ve been a threesome ever since.

2 thoughts on “Three Cities

  1. Venice — car-free, but teeming with people; elegant buildings from history, parked by modern concrete and angles; history that’s still *alive* on a daily basis (not to mention delicious cakes, lovely souvenirs, and a carnival that I want to see again.

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