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I had not known that there was such a place as this, at all – this place that was so squalid and so splendid, so ugly and so grand, where every imaginable manner of person stood, or strolled, or lounged, side by side.


Despite the three years I spent there, Oxford is not quite a real city to me: Oxford mediated through the writings of Innes and Day Lewis, Oxford as described in Pullman or Beerbohm is nearer my memory than the palpable stones and pavements. Much the same goes for London, with another cast of zoomancers to call up living images: first and foremost Allingham, then Wills Croft. Conrad's London in The secret agent. Josephine Tey's London as a backdrop for Inspector Grant. Edgar Wallace's London with its slightly disreputable City and not-quite-what-they-seem suburbs. Pullman, again, and his ruthless picture of Sally Lockhart's surroundings. And, indeed, the vanished London of hundreds of tram-pictures, disappeared as completely as Kingsway interchange station.

Real, actual London is not a place I visit with any great enthusiasm. "Crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure," said Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century. Can't say any dissipation has ever come my way, but crowds seem unavoidable. A certain grubbiness, a certain impression that the gilt or the paint are wearing a little thin … and everyone, it seems, either completely absorbed in his or her own affairs and anxieties or terrified beyond mere decorum of any accidental human contact. Not like friendly, curious, interested Brussels.

Some happy surprises, though, nonetheless: most recent discovery "The Champions", a solidly Edwardian pub off the less than glamorous bustle of Oxford Street. No muzak, a good pint of Sam Smith's stout on draft, and utterly wonderful stained glass in every ground-floor window. Cared for, too, the few cracks neatly re-leaded and protective perspex for the panels in the heavy doors. So Dr Johnson can hold off with his muttering for a while: I am not yet entirely tired of London.

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