London, if only I could see you now.
The last time I was in London was more than two years ago, in the depths of winter. I stayed with a dear friend who had a flat round the corner from Noble Rot. Every January (pre-Covid) Noble Rot used to run Michel Guérard’s low-calorie spa menu for lunch. For the two weeks I was there, I had cuisine minceur every day, and learnt the hard way that soda bread, focaccia and half a bottle of claret more than make up for the calorific austerity of the main course.
It is probably obvious why I haven’t been back since. Like everyone else in lockdown, I have become a citizen of my bedroom. As the world continues to languish in the doldrums of the pandemic, it seems very unlikely that I will be able to return anytime soon. However, I am certain that when I do go back most of the places I remember would have changed beyond recognition. And I am sure Londoners know that too.
In these trying times, we all suffer from the tyranny of nostalgia, aching for a world that no longer exists. I must confess as I am writing this I am struggling to remember most of the things that I’ve done in London because most of my time there seems to have faded away – the commutes, the acquaintances, most of my university degree. The years-old pictures on my phone appear like a series of non-sequiturs with no context. And yet, every now and then, I would get an inexplicable gut-wrenching longing for this city that I thought I could let go.
There is something unique about a proper chippy that makes it impossible to recreate elsewhere
This feeling is always related to food. The acerbic smell of malt vinegar always takes me back to my first night at North Sea Fish in Bloomsbury. It isn’t my favourite chippy in the world by any means. That accolade goes to Garden Fish Bar in Kew Gardens, down the road from the tube station. North Sea though was my first, and you never forget your first.
Where I live now, there is an “English” chippy down the road, where I occasionally pop by. They serve cod, chips, and even saveloys, and by all reasonable definitions is a real fish and chip shop, but it never feels right. There is something unique about a proper chippy that makes it impossible to recreate elsewhere; the greasy floor, the harsh but somehow dim fluorescent lighting, the bubbling of the chips simmering in the deep fryer, the murmuring of slightly drunk patrons trying to regain enough sobriety to get home. What I always remember is the rush of the cold, damp air in my face once I step out of North Sea onto the street. In my mind, that is the smell of London.
Visiting a city after you’ve once lived in it is completely different from being a tourist. For those who have not had the pleasure of a nomadic experience, I would instinctively seek out the places where I feel welcome and at home. On a lonely winter’s night, that would be the Gilbert Scott, where bar manager Dav Eames or one of the other old timers would warm my soul with a well-shaken Last Word. On a sunny day, I would go to the Euston Tap, where my mates and I used to have a cheeky pint and a scotch egg between classes. When I had nothing to do, I would hide out at Pritchard and Ure in Camden, a little café in a garden centre which sources some of the best olive oil in the world.
London was where I realised that food is an integral part of who I am, the medium for me to interact with the world
I wish I was walking down the Regent’s Canal from Camden Town to the Waitrose at King’s Cross listening to Revolver and eating a sausage roll, or waiting for the bus on the Bath Road after having biryani at the Indian restaurant in the Heathrow Sheraton, the name of which I can no longer remember. The biryani was absolutely delicious. The hour-long journey home on the Piccadilly Line was not.
When friends came to visit they would ask me to take them to a musical in the West End or to see the Palace of Westminster so they could take pictures of themselves pretending to hold up Big Ben. Nobody ever mentioned lunch unless it was at Burger and Lobster, a place I am proud to have never been. For a city which once had a dismal international reputation for eating out, London was where I realised that food is an integral part of who I am, the medium for me to interact with the world.
In the grand scheme of things, my time in London was brief. Despite my nostalgia, I never stayed long enough to become a regular at Core by Clare Smyth or make a mark on anything (not least the cocktail menu at the Gilbert Scott). But it was the first city I chose to belong to. And I guess that means something.
The day I was supposed to leave, I packed my bags and logged on to the British Airways website to check in. I couldn’t bear to do it. So I changed my flight to give myself another day. Before taking the train to Gatwick I stepped into Noble Rot, had my final three course lunch, soda bread and focaccia with a few glasses of Joh Jos Prum Riesling, and finally went on my way. After every few steps I would stop and glance back at that burgundy shopfront, secretly wishing it had eyes to look at me too.
Photo of St Pancras station licensed by Adobe.