1st february 2005
lost in space

I come out of a formica kebab-house alone after lunch, my head prickly with retsina. The air outside is a sunny swirl of exhaust fumes; that faint, smoky-turquoise big city colour. I stand on the pavement waiting to cross at the lights. Suddenly I know that I don't know the direction of the traffic. Do cars here drive on the left or the right side of the road? A cluster of Italian au pair girls, their voices mellow and labial, like a chorus escaped from an opera, pass me; I hear, in the crowd, an adenoidal Nebraskan contralto, twangy as a jew's-harp. Turned to a dizzied tourist myself, forgetful and jet-shocked, I have to hunt in my head for the language spoken here . . . at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity.

- Jonathan Raban, Soft City

I never really knew what this meant until a few years back: it was summer, a hot day of sticky tarmac and extra drinks, and I was in Wapping visiting a bookshop - now closed; I came out of the Tobacco Dock shopping centre, looked up and saw this:


Tableau. I didn't know at the time that it was Hawksmoor's 1729 church, St George-in-the-East: I didn't know what it was - I didn't know where I was. Standing on the pavement, I wondered, Istanbul? Somewhere in the Levant, at least; and how long have I been here? And then London crowded back in, and disappointment.