London starts as fragments. A collection of sharp focus images burned on the silver iodide paper of the mind. These jagged snatches do not make sense. Do not make an understandable whole. When you begin, beyond the shared title of the city, there is no natural narrative to link them.
As a very young child, London bewildered me. It seemed to go on forever and contain everything. When we took a bus in Essex, we went through places. Hadleigh ended at the green blasts of the Salvation Army farm and the roundabout. Thundersley at the rollercoaster dip of Bread and Cheese Hill.
Yet London did not provide such easy demarcations. The Routemaster ride from Kings Cross to Waterloo went through dozens of places with names, but they were all London. If Euston, Kingsway or Aldwych had borders, they were so smudged by continuities of crowd, concrete and traffic they were invisible to my young eyes.
London made me want to hold my mother’s hand. I feared being separated because I knew it was possible to get lost here. The city could disappear you. Pull you into the tidal surge of a crowd. Pull you into itself so that you would never find a way out of its gigantic sameness.
It was not like this back home. Childhood Essex was a landscape rich in landmarks. From the huge tar pot at the pub in Benfleet to the futuristic, bulbous tower looming from Ford’s tractor plant, everywhere had something that fed the imagination and allowed my four-year-old mind to make rudimentary mental maps.
With that astonishingly firm, but wildly misplaced belief that comes so easy to a young boy, I was confident that even if stranded at Colchester Zoo, I could find my way home. The 37 miles could be navigated in Essex. Every bit was different. I knew which way was up and what was next to each other. I felt I could draw it, make it become a map.
However, I could not do that with London. Beyond the boundaries of The Cut, it became a shaken jigsaw with no illustration on the box. There was the park with the pelicans – the last place I remember being with my father – the bit with all the museums and the knot of streets in which the Sunday market did not quite fit. Even acquiring names for these places – St. James’s Park, South Kensington, Petticoat Lane did not help. I had no sense of routes between them, no idea where I would put them if trying to create a chart.
It did not become much clearer even when I began my first tentative explorations of the city as a teenager. Being deposited by the train at Tower Hill and travelling on the Underground to Hammersmith for concerts at the Odeon gave no real clues as to how it all fitted together. The kabbalistic diagram of the Tube only occulted things further. Every trip up gave me more fragments, but no sense of how the city worked. No way to read its underlying story.
London only began to make sense when I started to walk it. Within a fortnight of starting my first job in the city at ITV, I abandoned the Tube. Going by foot from Hatfields to Finsbury Circus every day, a connection grew to the city as a living thing.
The Thames was revealed as its spine, giving me my first line of latitude. South or North of the river actually meant something. East now started somewhere beyond the failing shadows of the Barbican’s towers. White City the first place you could probably call West. London centres of iconic gravity, whether Soho or Westminster, began to pulse on my interior radar. London was still too big to ever know completely, but walking the city allowed personal maps of the place to begin grow inside my head.
It has taken years, but my internal atlas of the city has begun to unite those fragments into a shape I recognise. Tonight, with the firmness of a child believing it could always find its way home across Essex, I am certain I could walk home from Wembley Arena if the Tubes are not running. Down and east, along streets littered with landmarks and layered with stories. Down and east, following the personal contours of my inner map. Down and east till I reach the Three Bridge Kingdom and my own 0º 0º, the confluence of my heart.