As the news from London has grown darker, I’m remembering the year I lived there as a kid. My father had switched parishes with a Church of England priest in Esher; after being licensed under the Colonial Clergy Act he settled in for a year as visiting rector.
These days Esher teems with American expats; in those days we were a rare enough species — for some, the first Americans they’d ever seen not in military uniform. London was one of the world’s safest cities in those days; my mother would give my 10 year old brother and me day passes on the bus and subway system and a map, and we were off exploring the city on our own. Neither my brother or I ever had a bad moment in that welcoming and kindly place.
Traffic would sometimes be stopped when an unexploded bomb from the war turned up during street repair; the last of the famous London fogs were slowly dissipating as the city gradually lost the blanket of coal smoke that had wrapped it from the start of the Industrial Revolution. But the great stone facades of the city: Westminster Abbey, Parliament House and St. Pauls’ were still black and ghastly from decades of soot and exposure to pea soup fog.
London has changed in some ways for the better and others for the worse. The air is cleaner but the streets look worse. The police are better armed and the people less safe. The city is more cosmopolitan but less comfy. The food is better and the prices are worse. The Underground is pretty much as it was, much the worse in some places for the fifty years’ wear since I first rode it.
You would not send two children into London today on their own; they would be better off in New York. The last couple of nights, law abiding adults feared to venture out into some parts of the city.
I’ve been listening to Noel Coward’s great Blitz song as I write: “London Pride Has Been Handed Down To Us.” (Video, and link to buy the song here.) Some of the lyrics make a lot of sense:
In our city darkened now, street and square and crescent,
We can feel the living past in our darkened present.
Ghosts beside our starlit Thames who lived and loved and died
Keep throughout the ages London Pride…
Grey city, stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted for a thousand years.
Stay, city, smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.
London has lived through much worse, and London will survive.