My first return to London since leaving four-and-a-half years ago, my first time in the city instead of hurtling around it on the M25 in a small rental car, couldn't have come at a more apposite time. When I lived in London, right to the end I think, Boris Johnson clowned his way from event to meeting, from PR stop to self-inflating pronouncement. He bounced around erratically, bumbled through pompous speeches, entertained with generous buffoonery, and was generally indulged by Londoners like a harmless wayward child that everyone hopes will eventually come to his senses.
He was indulged because he was correctly perceived as harmless. As Mayor of London he couldn't hurt the city much because he didn't have all that much power and was surrounded by sensible advisers. The Garden Bridge, a horticultural folly across the river in central London, which he sank £43 million of public funds into before it died a silent death in the murky waters of the Thames, was the biggest damage he did the city. A few years later he campaigned for Brexit, and everything before, good or bad, was instantly forgotten.
The gorgeous day, airy, warm and sunny with just the right amount of fluffy white clouds against an expanse of blue, belied London's reputation as dreary and grey. The city's weather is much better than non-residents believe, but such days as today are rare nonetheless. It would have been perfect to wander around and reminisce in my home of eight years – not for a few hours or a day, but an entire extended weekend – but I had come for work and the best I could do was look out the windows of the Dockland Light Rail that took me from the airport to town.
The City Airport is the best way to arrive in town. It's the fastest, and it affords the best views. Heathrow depresses with endless rows of drab Victorian terraces that always look as if it were raining. In the east, lots of poverty has been pushed out of sight. Dismal 50s housing, charmless two-up-two-downs, and industrial shanties have been razed to make way for nice but soulless apartment blocks, lively and livable, and different from anything in the center of town.
It's at Bank station that the London experience truly begins. The first-time visitor will be baffled and scared by the maze, the crowds, the airless heat, and the pulsating power. At rush hour, people are disgorged from jammed trains and pushed down narrow corridors, up and down stairs that cross invisible Underground lines, shoulder to shoulder against their will. Decisions concerning the eventual destination are taken early and irrevocably. This is what toothpaste must feel like when it is squeezed through the nozzle. Maybe that's how the Tube got its sobriquet.
I caught a train towards the center, the last one on, with just enough space for my slim body and obese daypack. The spot by the door has the benefit of slightly less stale air, but this comes at an enhanced risk of decapitation. The doors of the deep-level trains curve inwards at shoulder height to let the trains fit through the narrow round tunnels. Getting off unharmed I noticed a curiosity of London Underground corridors. Every third or fourth ceiling panel is missing, as if someone had realized this project would never be finished, so why create the illusion.
Around my hotel, a faux-historic palace with confused decoration – statues pretending to be Egyptian and Greek key motifs throughout – that can only be explained by its proximity to the Museum of Imperial Pillage and Loot (a.k.a the British Museum), traffic pulsates and people run in throngs. Any new arrival is in awe, gaping at the incomprehensible, trying to see meaning, figuring out where is left and where is right. The contrast to Switzerland is staggering. I had half-forgotten about this, maybe not about the fact but at least about the effect, but I reconnect fast.
The Evening Standard, still gloriously clad in a coat of paper, is handed out every evening in front of Tube stations. Fopp still sells music the old-fashioned way, on disks silver or black, with geeky shop assistants so in love with song that they'd rather share their passion with an equally fanatical customer than move on and serve the next two that wait in line to pay. Maybe it's good business to culture fervent customers even at the cost of losing the occasional shopper. I outlasted the wait and, at the ripe age of 45, bought my first, and then my second, Rolling Stones album (Beggars Banquet, Aftermath). In the Standard, Boris grinned from every page, innocence and fun drained from his face.
Boris had just been humiliated by Parliament. Members, including some of his own party, don't share his excitement for an exit from the European Union without a deal to manage it and have sent off legislation to outlaw it. It is not necessary to understand British politics to be entertained by it from the safety of another country. It's a bit more delicate in the UK. I decided not to make a Brexit joke during my talk the next day.