My first memory of London was coming here with my mother when I was under ten years’ old. Here’s a picture from the trip, outside Buckingham Palace with my mum and sister Sally, probably around 1970:
We were living in Plymouth then and inevitably London seemed exotic, posh, grand, unattainable. I came back about five years’ later with my mum and dad on a trip to see my godfather Tony, who took us to lunch somewhere where a waiter flambéed savoury pankcakes at our table. You didn’t get much of that in Plymouth in 1975. After lunch, my dad indulged us in a taxi back to our hotel and we drove through Hyde Park where I saw youngsters playing softball which seemed astonishingly sophisticated to me. People in London seemed to live charmed lives, Gatsbys the lot of them.
After I finished university in 1982, it never occurred to me to go back home so, like most of my friends, I drifted to London and found myself in the job queue at Harrods. I got a job as a porter in the Gifts Dept and spent the summer of 1982 in a basement storeroom on Brompton Road wrapping up musical cottages to be flown to America. I’ve lived in London ever since and now, like the cast of Like Fire Unbound, consider myself first and foremost a Londoner. I feel like I own the place, like we all do, and I feel outraged when some meddling politician or bureaucrat mucks around with it.
Soon after arriving, I inherited my elder sister Susi’s room in a squat in Vauxhall when she decided to emigrate to Scotland. For most of my life, she has indulged her little brother, inviting me to stay with her in Germany when I was fourteen and where I first had drugs, then a couple of years later allowing me to follow her to Morocco where I roamed around the Atlas mountains on my own. Susi’s back in London now so we’re near neighbours and my two children are all grown up and working in London as fully-fledged Londoners.
Maybe it was my children becoming such grown-up people that made me realise how long I’d been here and made me think three or four years ago what the city meant to me. At that stage I was living in Tower Hamlets and I started pottering into some of the libraries in the City, randomly researching stuff. I found this book in the Guildhall Library:
It had copies of the maps of the London from 1676, maps like this one:
and so I began to imagine being a Londoner unconstrained by time, a participant in the great democratic swirl of people who have arrived here over the centuries and tried to make a go of it. I began to think about all the ships arriving at the tip of the entrance to the Thames estuary over by Canvey Island bringing Dutch traders and German candlemakers and Jewish tailors and all the other hosts of the world deciding that London might be the city where their lives could be transformed, healed, improved.
And while doing that, I got more and more obsessed about the new London, the London of the Shard
Where I lived in Tower Hamlets, another process of rebirth was taking place in and around the old News International premises. In the 1980s, I’d had a job as a lorry driver for a while and can remember being shouted at by picketing strikers as I drove a van into the News International warehouse. Now each day as I wandered out of our flat to the shops, I’d pass all these strange antiseptic cream-coloured walkways that were connecting yet more tower blocks of apartments for affluent City workers:
And so gradually, these mutterings and musings began to be connected together by characters who elected to appear, one after the other, all insisting on having their say about what it meant to be a Londoner. I didn’t really need to do much, they all seemed perfectly happy to tell their story and so for a couple of years I sat each early morning in front of the computer and let them talk about their lives.
Eventually, Like Fire Unbound was completed and I felt much like the librarian in Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance who patiently welcomed people in the middle of the night who wanted to place their latest work with him; like those people, the characters in Like Fire Unbound just wanted to have their say and, having said it, they were done with me.