It’s a source of perennial comfort that London’s coppers (how I like that word) cheerfully give directions and stop for photos with tourists.
It was love at first sight when Paola Totaro was posted to the capital. Seven years later, the passion still burns bright and she’s here to stay.
People say that the seventh year is the dangerous one, the time when the object of your ardour can start to lose lustre and those once lovable peccadilloes mutate into infuriating defects. “You’re like a giddy girl in love,” observed an Australian colleague. He was right. Seven years on and I’m still bewitched.
The love affair with London began in 2008 when I was appointed European correspondent for Australia’s two major broadsheet newspapers. I remember the very first night in the company flat near Fleet Street, watching mesmerised as an unseasonably late snowfall dusted the sea of rooftops outside. The mantle of white glitter over the steeple of St Dunstan’s church is an indelible image in my mind.
Next day, all rugged up in hats and scarves – you don’t get to do that very often in Australia – we happily tramped the streets around Fetter Lane, revelled at the wedding cake steeple of St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, ambled to The Strand past the rococo folly that is Australia House down and on, towards the Thames, looking past Waterloo Bridge and the turrets of Westminster, with Big Ben familiar, friendly, iconic against the dark grey skies.
“Exploring buildings, streets and churches centuries older than the arrival of the English in Australia in 1788, feels exciting, invigorating, exotic”
For us Aussies, so used to two seasons – hot or wet – the bracing cold, the crunch of ice beneath our boots, the puffs of breath as we walk around exploring buildings, streets and churches centuries older than the arrival of the English in Australia in 1788, feels exciting, invigorating, exotic.
My first cold snap here, the streets were teeming with people, the pubs exuded warmth and the gentle buzz of conversation, even the buses offered a happy splash of red in what felt like a black and white movie.
A week or two later, exploring Hampstead I happened into a little enclave of minuscule cottages, colourful front doors leading directly on to a hidden, flagstone courtyard. Clustered amicably there for three centuries – with welltended boxes of enormous hydrangeas nodding in the breeze – Golden Yard reminded me of a book I’d read as a small child. The gentle sunshine, hum of the little high street around the corner, the worn flight of steps that led to the Hollybush pub and the intensely human scale of this little pocket secreted deep within an enormous metropolis made me realise that while I’d only just arrived, I never wanted to leave.
“The intensely human scale of this little pocket secreted deep within an enormous metropolis made me realise I never wanted to leave”
London’s visceral pull, for me at least, remains encapsulated in these early, tiny vignettes. It is an enormous city, a global, financial and creative hub, and yet it is made up of tiny niches: the surprise when you turn a corner to find a cobblestone paved mews, a Blue Plaque or an unexpected glimpse of the Thames at the end of a lane. It is a city comprising layers, a palimpsest of peoples, of architecture, of cultures, ages and styles.
It should all clash terribly, but somehow, splendidly, it does not. The Shard, the Gherkin, the forest of cranes that herald the city’s new, twenty-first century skyline all seem to find their place, becoming part of the urban fabric, woven in beside St Paul’s and behind the Tower, cheek by jowl with the past.
In London, social housing is everywhere, rarely pushed out to the city’s peripheries, out of sight out of mind. Londoners complain that the new rich are driving out the poor but the truth is that this city is still varied, richly diverse and in most places you will still meet neighbours who come from a walk of life entirely different to yours.
“It is a city comprising layers, a palimpsest of peoples, of architecture, of cultures, ages and styles”
There have been times, sitting on the bus into the City from our south east London home where the cacophony of languages is reminiscent of that wonderful scene in the aliens bar in the very first Star Wars movie.
History in the British capital is equally imbued with life. Living people, not mere shadows and relics of times long gone, inhabit the royal palaces. London’s parks are myriad and no matter the season, populated with people, with dogs, bikes and joggers. Catch a night bus at 3am and you’ll not be alone. Pop your head into a corner pub in Brixton or Highgate and you’ll find someone happy to have a chat.
I come from a nation where the police carry guns. It is a source of perennial comfort that London’s coppers (how I like that word) on horseback, bicycles or mostly, on foot, cheerfully give directions, stop for photos with tourists. And boy, does this city do big, big street events with good humour, precision and grace. The Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee, the tumult of the Olympics, the London Marathon – London loves a party and in general, everyone is so well behaved.
Early on in my posting, covering the mayoral campaign between the then incumbent Ken Livingstone and his rival, Boris Johnson, I watched with surprise as the prime minister, Gordon Brown, walked through a Sikh temple, chatting amiably, seemingly untrammelled by security men or an overt police guard. Since then, I’ve seen the current premier David Cameron and his chancellor, among other VIPs, cross the road at Whitehall, alone. Despite suffering terrorist attacks London’s spirit is resilient, its absolute refusal to succumb to security fears is palpable and invigorating.
“London’s parks are myriad and no matter the season, populated with people, with dogs, bikes and joggers”
Settled in south east London after living the first three years in the north west, I still marvel at the camaraderie shown by neighbours, local shops, publicans and businesses when the community braced against the maelstrom of the summer riots in 2011. One evening, a van full of police stopped at the traffic lights just outside the local corner pub that had stayed open as a sign of solidarity. A spontaneous chorus of the song 'We Love you Baaaaby' from the drinkers on the kerb outside – students, elderly locals and everyone in between – saw a phalanx of anxious, grim police officers break out in wide, grateful grins.
That night, the extraordinary array of local eateries in our ’hood – Chinese, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Turkish – all decided to continue trading, letting clients in and locking the doors behind them. Despite chipboard nailed in to protect glass and windows, life simply went on.
A few months later, when head office in Sydney began to pressure me for a return date, it was that moment of community that somehow crystallized my desire to jump ship and emigrate permanently.
“You’re what? Why would you leave Sydney to live in grey old London?” is a refrain I’ve heard again and again.
“You’ll regret it,” said our Australian friends.
“Are you mad?” insisted British mates.
I haven’t had a second thought.Not even for an instant. Every time I hop on the number 12 bus and it crosses Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament on one side, the statue of Boudicca and that crazy Ferris wheel on the other, I pinch myself that this is now my city.
Paola Totaro is President of the Foreign Press Association in London. An award-winning Australian journalist, she was European correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age and now lives and works in London.
This article comes from the latest edition of Barometer. View the digital version.
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