These days though, as a visitor, I enjoy a walk through London, so when I was there last week I went for a wander. This is what I saw.
I walked up through the park and onto Piccadilly. Then I passed the old In & Out Club and was, as usual, puzzled to see it standing unused and empty. The poor old place is looking even more delapidated than it was some years ago when I last peered through the railings. What is the point of leaving it to rot? Someone very rich from a far away country owns it, I believe. I wish he would either make use of it or let it go. It is looking very miserable at the moment:
Even though I thought I was fairly familiar with this part of London, it can still spring surprises, especially if you glance upwards. Despite having walked up St James's Street and onto Piccadilly a hundred times, until the other day I'd never registered the rather imposing figure at the top of the building on the corner:
Once again, near the entrance to the park I discovered something I'd never noticed before - this sign telling passers by that Her Majesty, (it's only just occurred to me, but it must be rather good to be called "Her/Your Majesty"; excellent for one's confidence, don't you think?), the Queen planted a little grove of silver birches in this plot in 1977. 1977! And they're still tiny. Gardening must be very much a game of patience in the British Isles:
when I noticed a plaque I'd walked past many times without paying any attention. As I am now a temporary resident of Belgium, it suddenly seemed enormously interesting - moving even:
Sadly, I have to reveal that my walk wasn't all exciting discoveries - it also had its fair share of disappointments. My favourite haberdasher's has somehow turned into a branch of Pret a Manger and several other equally well-established businesses seem to have been swallowed up by more food outlets for office workers. I wonder if these are the only kind of business that breaks even in London at the moment.
The worst blow of all was the disappearance of Allen's, my favourite butcher in the world. It was a place where good food was understood and valued, where you could buy meat that was not killed yesterday and, most fantastically, where, if you went in a week or two before Christmas and looked up, the ceiling appeared to have been completely replaced by a dense mass of feathers - actually, closely packed turkeys, suspended and awaiting their turn on the Christmas table. I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again:
The French government subsidises small quirky shops, I've been told. It certainly has much more varied high streets than Great Britain does generally. But the British population doesn't seem greatly moved by the march of chain shops and the erosion of individuality in the retail sector, (an exception being Totnes, where I went later in the week; cheeringly, the inhabitants of that town seem to have fought off the Zara-Next-Accessorize-BootstheChemist-M&S-Costa blandness that characterises so many midsized rural towns).
After London, I got on the train and headed for Devon. I was still sad about the loss of Allen's and the various other shops I'd always assumed would be there forever, but the British countryside looked so lovely, I couldn't stay sad for long. I was reminded, when I glimpsed some allotments on the edge of one or other town we passed through, that I am truly a hybrid, half-Australian/half-English: that is to say, I have always rather wanted an allotment, which is something no Australian I have ever met can even begin to understand. Because I am also Australian I can see how allotments represent an English embrace of small horizons and expectations that is anathema to Australian optimism, but as an English person, I cannot quite rid myself of pinched perspectives and dismally unambitious dreams.