'London's main characteristic is an absence of form. Its thirty-three
boroughs have busy districts running through them like veins, with no
visible hierarchy, and neighbourhood ties remain inexplicably close.
Because Londoners have a strongly pronounced sense of home, where you
live counts more than who you are.' Bryant mostly lived inside his head.
Remember the facts, he told himself, they like facts.
'We have six royal parks, 160 theatres, 8,600 restaurants, 300 museums
and around 30,000 shops. Over 3,500 criminal offences are reported every
day. Poverty and wealth exist side by side, often in the same street.
Bombings caused slum clearance and social housing, rupturing
centuries-old barriers of class, turning the concept into something
mysterious and ever-shifting. London is truly unknowable.'
Bryant looked past his under-dressed audience to the swirling brown
river. The Japanese boys were bored and cold, and had started taking
pictures of litter bins. One of them was listening to music. 'A city of
cruelty and kindness, stupidity and excess, extremes and paradoxes,' he
told them, raising his voice. 'Almost half of all journeys through the
metropolis are made on foot. A city of glass, steel, water and flesh
that no longer smells of beer and brick, but piss and engines.'
He lifted his silver-capped walking stick to the sky. 'The arches of
London's Palladian architecture lift and curve in secular harmonies.
Walls of glass reflect wet pavements in euphonious cascades of rain.' He
was no longer addressing the group, but voicing his thoughts. 'We're
heading for winter, when a caul of sluggishness deepens into
thanatomimesis, the state of being mistaken for death. But the city
never dies; it just lies low. Its breath grows shallow in the cold river
air while housebound tenants, flu-ridden and fractious with the
perpetual motion of indoor activity, recover and grow strong once more.
London and its people are parasites trapped in an ever-evolving
symbiosis. At night the residents lose their carapace of gentility,
bragging and brawling through the streets. The old London emerges,
dancing drunk skeletons leaving graveyard suburbs to terrify the faint
Now even the hardiest listeners looked confused. They spoke to each
other in whispers and shook their heads. Their guide seemed to be
straying from his topic: 'A Historic Thameside Walk'. The Japanese boys
gave up and wandered off. Someone said, rather loudly, 'This tour was
much better last time. There was a café.'
Bryant carried on, regardless.
'London no longer suffers from the weight of its past. Now only the
faintest resonance of legendary events remains. Oh, I can show you
balustrades, pillars and scrollwork, point out sites of religious and
political interest, streets that have witnessed great events, but to be
honest there's bugger all to see. It's impossible to imagine the lives
of those who came before us. Our visible history has been rubbed to a
trace, like graffiti scrubbed from Portland stone. London has reinvented
itself more completely than ever. And whoever grows up here becomes a
part of its human history.'
He had completely lost his listeners. They were complaining to each
other in dissatisfaction and disarray. 'That concludes the tour for
today,' he added hastily. 'I think we'll skip question time, you've been
a truly dreadful audience.' He decided not to bother with his tip box as
the mystified, grumbling group was forced to disperse across the windy
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