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Revisiting London

Outside the Running Horse, in London’s Mayfair neighborhood, 
where the author 
once worked.

Photo: Lisa Linder

Today’s London is far more interesting, I won’t deny that. Yet still I feel—is betrayed too strong a word? Because honestly, the way I see it, we were mates once. Best mates. We liked the same music, liked the same clothes, followed the same football clubs. We even talked alike. And inevitably, we drifted apart. When we did reconnect—once a year at most—it wasn’t the same. His quips and puns eluded me. He developed a ponderous regard for wine, expensive cars, and increasingly slim-fitting suits. Instead of our usual night at the pub he’d drag me out to champagne bars and Alan Yau restaurants. I persuaded myself it was just a phase. But phases bled into phases, changes compounded changes, until, finally, our estrangement was complete.

Good Lord, listen to me. I’ve become a bad novel: Aging crank revisits lost youth; cue strings, bittersweet regret. Forgive my maudlin self-indulgence. (If it’s any excuse, I just turned 40.) But really, what on earth did I expect? Only a child—a 20-year-old—could have wished London not to evolve, not to grow up.

Of course, this isn’t just about London, is it? It’s about the feeling any traveler has returning to a place he once knew as well as any: A city that seems to hold you in it, or some earlier incarnation of yourself. Going back, you become again that long-ago person, even while the city changes utterly around you. As it is I’ve spent most of my post-London life in New York, 5,000-odd days of it, such that I’ve scarcely noticed the incremental, wholesale transformation of Manhattan over the past 15 years. Yet an Englishman returning here after a decade away might feel the same about New York as I do about London: that it looks like an artist’s rendering; that “it’s all about money now”; that glamour has eclipsed grit, and something has been lost in the process; that the city no longer belongs to me, but to other, younger, wealthier, more exciting people.

“You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now,” Colson Whitehead wrote in The Colossus of New York. For me that holds true in both Manhattan and London: this bank will always be that vanished cinema, this Abercrombie & Fitch forever the record shop it replaced. A diner is never just a diner, a pub never merely a pub. A city becomes yours when you start remembering it as it was. But what happens when the city stops remembering you? What if it just moves on, like a flame you never quite got over? Long after we stop haunting the places we loved, the places we loved keep haunting us.

Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L's editor-at-large.

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