Dressed in a Cape Cod baseball cap, sunglasses, rugby shirt, shorts and wearing lightweight walking boots I am distinctly aware that I look to all the world like an American tourist – except for that fact that my socks are discreetly pulled down rather than tugged to mid-calf as is the US style. And to be honest I couldn’t care less.
It is a truly beautiful day in West London, the streets are alive with people from all corners of the world and the air thick with smells: white Jasmine flowers are replaced by a heady wisp of skunk smoke which then segue to cinnamon and cardamoms from Ottolenghi’s kitchen cafe.
For no better reason than the joy of pure unadulterated sauntering, we surrender ourselves to that wonderful French pursuit and become ‘flâneurs’. There is nothing lazy in our strolling, it is, rather, a means to understand the rich variety of the city landscape by means of a slow stroll through a moving photograph of urban experience. As connoisseurs of the street our urban exploration is consumed with a glorious ‘gastronomy of the eye’.
This part of London is exceptionally beautiful, the architecture speaking of a time when wealth and a sense of greatness was the overarching sentiment of the city. It was here that the consolidation of money and power exhibited itself in acres of grand residential villas, each a mini town estate. Now that the sun has set on the glory days of empire the former merchants and industrialists have been replaced with hedge fund managers and bankers, amassers of a peculiarly vapid kind of wealth.
As we turn into Portobello Road we are treated to a line of terraced housing plucked straight out of a country village. On every side four storey villas dominate but in this section it is all rambling roses climbing over low cottages doors. Number 20 seems particularly popular and a line of Asian tourists are queuing up to have their photographs taken with it as the backdrop. It must be a scene from a film, perhaps the eponymous Notting Hill that we are now walking through. I am drawn more to a blue plaque on the house next door and see that George Orwell lodged there during the winter of 1927 after resigning as Assistant Superintendent of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. It reminds me of two things: that I have been wanting to get hold of a copy of one of his lesser known works ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’; and that currently sales of ‘1984’ are booming. I scan the house and surroundings and note that there is not a CCTV camera to be seen.
Arriving where Westbourne Grove intersects Portobello Road we watch as as an open-topped cherry red Lamborghini glides past on a cushion of privilege and overtly stated power. Its driver is a young, impeccably groomed and dressed male. As it passes I note the registration, 50 5EXY. A waiting pedestrian shouts “Wanker” and there are smiles and giggles all round. London is a jolly place.
I am enjoying being in the city of my birth as it has been a while since the last visit. Being a tourist is no great stigma to bear either. Ever since an afternoon in Morocco with the affable Mohamed the often contentious distinction between travellers and tourists has seemed very blurred to me, there is no pure tourist or pure traveller, both being composed to varying degrees of a mixture of each other. Mohamed’s line floated back to me “We are all tourists in this world”. Indeed we are and it is good to be reminded of that.
Good God Ashby, you do look like a tourist. But it is this right? it does seem clever…