Of all the things I thought I would bring back from England, an horrendous cold was not one of them. I suppose it was payback for a great week of burning the candle at both ends: up early for work, and then late with friends and jetlag. Whatever the reason, Friday and Saturday were a write-off, Sunday I rallied enough to leave the house, and Monday it was time to be better whether I was or not because I was back to work on Tuesday.
It was strange to see Oxford in snow. I took my usual getting re-acquainted walk at about 10.30 pm on Sunday. Light snow was falling again for a while, there was barely anyone around and I deliberately chose the side streets. The snow hadn’t been cleared but had been trodden down. If anything were needed to make Oxford look more mediaeval, then a dark night shrinking the scene to lamplit stone walls and white-covered footways did the trick. So over the course of the week, I walked to all my dinners, and then I walked home again, feeling all the while the seductive pull of a place so easily encompassed.
Aren’t cities by night magical? Far more so than during the day, when they are mostly just overcrowded and ugly. I prefer the quiet emptiness of late nights when I don’t have to share. When I was a teenager I would walk into the local town centre just to get out of the house. It was about 3 miles and there was nothing to do when I got there, until McDonald’s finally opened. Then I’d buy a cinnamon doughnut and walk home again. Slightly older, my friend and I would stagger home along the same path, drunk and footsore, swinging our shoes after a night of dancing, cooling our feet on the smooth tarmac.
When I first moved to London I was afraid of being mugged if I walked around at night. This was a bit ridiculous because I’d survived unscathed in Manchester, which at the time was probably far more dangerous. Still, while Manchester was undoubtedly a city, London was The Big City and therefore more glamorous, more risky, more expensive, more everything. I was working in my first publishing job, and earning small change, which meant cabs were mostly out of the question. My night bus went from Trafalgar Square and I had to get there somehow, so necessity forced me to walk nervously through streets that, it turned out, were well peopled and lit up by late bars even at 2 am. Of course, often I was wrapped in that protective seeming layer of impermeability provided by too much gin and tonic, but after a while, stone cold sober, I would walk for the hell of it.
And is there anyone who has been young and in love and in London, and yet not walked hand in hand along the Embankment in the early hours, ‘and all of London littered with remembered kisses’?