The return to London had actually been via Helsinki, due to two projects there. Helsinki Vantaa is a wonderful airport, all soft sunlight, wooden floors, warm stone and steel, with free wifi and a civilized unhurried air, a near-perfect first impression of Europe.
Heathrow, of course, is rather different, and enough said about that. Still, Heathrow Express into Paddington, cab to Fitzrovia. Sydney-home to London-hotel had taken around 30 hours I'd guess, although the time difference, stopovers and jet lag make it difficult to really estimate this in any meaningful way. I'm well out of time. The route had been via Bangkok, departing just hours bed ore the insurgency really kicked off, and had snuck into Heathrow just hours before the latest volcanic ash cloud and BA strikes. After such luck, i can only assume a return leg of unimaginable horrors by way of compensation. A rare business class flight smoothed this potentially tortuous passage, with Finnair easily walloping BA Club World (BA Old World?) in terms of service, food, design of seats, in-flight entertainment, and most of all, the all-important category, glassware – chunky Iittala Ultima Thule, named after a mythical place beyond the known world, perhaps appropriately for the flight up over the top of central Asia.
It was a pleasure to be back in London, and in my old manor too, although the Rathbone Hotel was an unpleasant reminder of the meanness that can infect British service culture. Small, poorly laid-out, overheated rooms and with wifi at the epic rate of six quid an hour.
However its location is spot-on, and that's at least half any hotel experience. For instance, it's about 30 seconds away from the peerless Lantana on Charlotte Place, a little slice of Melbourne in Fitzrovia that made me feel instantly at home – in fact, both my recent homes. Happily enough, close to Arup's various offices too.
Wandering around Fitzrovia I was struck, as I had been a year ago, by how evident the signs of the so-called global financial crisis (it should really be the Europe-US Financial Crisis, no? Or EaU FuC.) Boarded-up shops, 'To Let' signs in places there never used to be 'To Let' signs, dormant development sites like the former Middlesex Hospital. This area of London will always do well in the medium to long term, due to its location and London's brutish, stubborn resilience, but right now it's an interesting bellwether, a sign of a malaise that must surely be being felt more deeply elsewhere in the UK.
Amongst the general flotsam and jetsam, a few closures were felt personally. We'd lived just off Store Street in Bloomsbury, and it was particularly sad to see that the old independent garage, which must have been one of the last in central London, had shut up shop. The Village Garage had been its charmingly inappropriate name.
Here it is as it used to be:
Likewise the Korean grocer just opposite, presumably suffering from the fact that most of the street was boarded-up for renovation, had closed down. I'd lived with these places every day but I particularly remember sitting in Café Deco on the corner, with the garage opposite and the grocer to the left, having a Full English just after the birth of my son. I wrote about both of them at that point, and to see them now moribund and deserted is more than a little sad. Yet London moves on regardless, and this innate ability to roll with the punches and cruelly slough off the inessential is no doubt a large part of its resilience and power.
The weather was instantly variable, which was actually an absolute pleasure. Walking around South Bank with my parents on Sunday, we had experienced bright, warm sunshine outside the Festival Hall, and within 10 minutes, horizontal sleet whipped into our numbing faces crossing Waterloo Bridge. Marvellous. The attraction would wear off, but after the perma-summer of New South Wales, I appreciate, and miss, the rich seasonal variability of Northern Europe. Perhaps Zürich or Milan rather than London, but still. Part of this is experiential, and even humbling. Another is to do with wearing clothes. Another is to do with long periods of internment indoors generating the drive to write books, music, code etc. The endless summer of much of Australia, as with Southern California, can actually get a little dull.
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