London, you are glorious. You are also brutal, bogus, ruined and you smell. For the past few days, in the shadow of Saturday’s attacks, I’ve been trying to see Britain’s capital as others might. It’s a mystery. Why are we all here? This grubby city lacks the scowling romance of Paris; the sybaritic pleasures of Barcelona; the adrenal sex-appeal of New York. What’s attracting the down-jacketed tourists? Are they hoping for actual spells in the queue for Platform 9¾? Is Piccadilly Circus really the stuff of their dreams? Are they expecting to bump into a Beatle?
Two decades ago, to provincial Brits like me, coming to the capital seemed a non-negotiable staging-post, like losing one’s virginity. These days, to live, as I once did, 25 minutes’ walk from Soho, one would have to be either the Queen or a homeless person. In the new Central London, one is never more than a metre from a banker. The skyline is clogged; factories have been developed into downlit cubbyholes for nascent plutocrats. Why, if it wasn’t for the culture and the shops, would anyone voluntarily live here? Who would contemplate raising tender young lives in a poky rat-run where the air is fumy and the soil is infused with coal-dust and exhaust? Never mind children: what about plants?
So why stay in London? I’ve never been inside St Paul’s. I don’t (whisper it) like theatre. Department stores depress me and hipsters are silly. One word: ingredients.
I know; it’s ridiculous. In the era of internet shopping, virtually anything is available, for a price. That isn’t the point. Take me to the Hungarian shop on Finchley Road, for sour cherry compote and ground poppy seeds with which, one day, I will replicate the spectacular cakes of Budapest, or Salvino’s off Camden Road for serious mozzarella, artichoke liqueur, Italian cereals and a fresh supply of Pocket Coffee: the caffeine-filled chocolates that fuel my days at the British Library. Make me happy: drive me to the northern suburbs to browse in the Asian pleasure dome of Wing Yip: frozen pigs’ feet and new-harvest rice and bags of mayonnaise; 14 kinds of seaweed snacks; sweet-potato jellies; cuttlefish crisps; wildly unidentifiable soup-herbs; teas containing Solomon’s seal, or walnuts, or Job’s Tears; all the woks of humankind. And, if I flag, I can eat dim sum until I pop.
The meals I envisage are fantasy, of course. My rampaging cookery book addiction often provokes a violent need for, say, dried barberries, even if I rarely use more than a spoonful. The pleasure is in the imagining; saucepan travel. And its zenith is to be found at Borough Market.
The food market at Borough is more than a thousand years old; the cold-brew coffee stands and kangaroo-burger purveyors slightly younger. Did medieval scribes, for comfort after a bad week’s illuminating, roam hungrily between the trestles of medieval tripe, groats and custards, planning delicious refectory feasts? Millions of us visit annually merely to eat: Welsh salami, flinty oysters and sophisticatedly oozing cheese toasties and the barbecued thighs of happy chickens. Food-obsessives like me gaze in Coleridgean awe at the sublime greengrocery: splayed puntarelle, porcini and muscat grapes, or the magnificent reek of the vast Cheddars at Neal’s Yard Dairy, ripened in clothbound, flagrantly unpasteurised. Passers-by queue for complicated doughnuts. Office workers drink pints after work; for the British, crowding on pub pavements beneath dripping hanging baskets is our passeggiata.
It’s a harmless place of pleasure — or it was. And now that the peace has been shattered, rather than wallowing in fear or bigotry, all right-thinking Londoners will be returning to Borough as soon as possible, for a defiant chorizo roll and a moment of gratitude, for the freedom and tolerance we still enjoy.
Sometimes, of course, it’s all too much. We are adjusting to new levels of fear, addicted to (yet frightened of) constant bad news. Others cope by running or knitting or, inexcusably, golf; I walk through my kitchen door into a world of extraordinary beauty, fascinating complications and, crucially, foodstuffs. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as absorption in the moment, when time seems to stop. He considers it the key to happiness; I’m sure he’s right. I discovered gardening during a miserable time and, whenever stressed or distressed, currently several times a day, I wander out, feet bare, unsuitably dressed, immediately at peace. The pleasure it gives me takes many forms. As a (usually) novelist, most often sitting in a state of caffeinated self-doubt in front of a screen, the thrill of feeling a breeze in my face or rain on my back, of snuffling up great lungfuls of musty tomato leaf or rose geranium or petrichor, of witnessing orgiastic earthworms by torchlight or happening upon a lost dragonfly is limitless, and essential, despite the fact that my garden is, by country standards, barely extant; roughly eight by five metres, mostly paved. But my chief delight is gastronomic. While others grow tulips, I cultivate bitter salad leaves, wild strawberries and, annually, an apple; I write this eating an insane but, for me, perfectly normal, lunchtime omelette featuring: sorrel, dandelion, spinach, chicory, marigold and sage flowers, mint, lemon thyme, tarragon, golden oregano, parsley, Greek and Italian basil, bulls-blood beetroot and nasturtium leaves, mizuna, red Russian and Cavolo Nero kale, three experimental baby vine leaves and a single pea shoot.
Naturally, I’ve tried growing more hardcore ingredients, including barberries: disaster. This is London, after all, not Iran. It’s so much more fun to buy them. After all, isn’t that what London is for?
The writer is a novelist and author of ‘Rhapsody in Green: A Modern Garden Notebook’