Stepping through the reopened arch of Victoria station and into the Baltic chill of London in early February, I feel an immediate swirl of vertigo. New shards of glass and chrome make the temporary bus station feel Lilliputian. I have struggled for years with the idea of this part of the city being anything other than run down and seedy. This is the final stage of its conversion.
The dilapidated Victorian office block where I once worked in a room with three other hacks has gone, an empty space next to the Victoria Palace theatre. My colleagues would smoke at their desks when our boss wasn’t there, which was most of the time. The fire escape where we would sunbathe is now a lift shaft.
The betting shop outside which rough sleepers would seek shelter has become a temporary walkway, awaiting new luxury apartments which no one here will be able to afford, or even wish to live in. Victoria has always been a no man’s land to me, no amount of building work can change its transitory nature.
I am trying to unlearn the routes which I know. Over the weekend, a friend’s husband explained to me the basics of neural pathways, how as humans we develop mental shortcuts at a young age and stick to them with a fundamental zeal. The brain is a lazy organ, all told. Breaking these easy routes takes time and effort, but doing so can yield exciting results. I want to remake myself neurologically through this physical challenge. I don’t want to go the same way any more.
Today I am heading to Foyles to meet a friend. I know the fastest route well. The long strides up Victoria Street. The fast dart through tourists around Parliament Square. The attempt to damp down my awe of power on Whitehall. The final stretch around Trafalgar Square and up Charing Cross Road.
Instead, I walk in the opposite direction, around the back of my old office, past a hotel with a Cigar Terrace and right onto Buckingham Palace Road. There is a clamour outside, as the guards trot down The Mall trailed by police in unmarked cars. I remember my impatience when I was a Londoner cycling here, desperate for the area to be quiet, tourist free. I make a conscious effort to walk slowly, enjoying the latent excitement.
In Green Park, paths are roped off with police tape. A small band of troops in greatcoats stand on the muddy grass, playing Goldfinger to a watching crowd of Chelsea Pensioners. It is 6th February. I fancy this is a bizarre way to mark 100 years of women’s suffrage in the UK. But a sign tells me it is merely a celebration of anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne.
I skirt the park, walking along Piccadilly towards The Ritz. I can’t remember ever strolling on this side of the road when I lived here, although surely I must have done. My mind falls back to a day almost 15 years ago when I marched along it in the reverse direction, holding a Stop The War banner from which I had ripped a Daily Mirror masthead. Where the street dips I remember looking ahead and being amazed at the sheer number of people, knowing full well we were all going to be ignored.
By now I am enjoying myself and decide against my plan of cutting straight onto Bond Street. I cross Piccadilly and walk up Down Street, past the former Tube station with its signifying red tiles and up into Mayfair, emerging onto South Audley Street past private security guards standing sentinel outside average looking mews houses.
I turn right, past Mayfair Library. It was here we got married four years ago, in lieu of Marylebone Registry Office being shut for refurbishment. It was a cold winter morning, just like this one, full of blue skies and possibilities. In Mounts Gardens, I pass office workers on a cigarette break, before walking past The Connaught, cringing at the memory of feeling inadequate during an excruciating press lunch some years ago. I have haunts here, memories, and my wandering brain, and my aimless feet, are doing their best to find them.
On Grosvenor Square, there is no longer a silent queue of singly terrified people awaiting visas from the U.S. Embassy. The only sign of the vast building’s former status is a statue of Ronald Reagan and a series of unused flagpoles. The former security post has been abandoned, chairs pushed back from desks and left to sit in the middle of the glass–sided room. I remember my last visit here, answering scripted questions about my intentions in the United States. My visa has nearly expired. It may soon be time to experience the same thing in a new, riverside location.
After following the edge of the park, I walk the length of Brook Street and head to Hanover Square. Everywhere there are gaping holes, billboards and cranes, the subterranean world being remade for Crossrail. Soon more people will be able to come and shop here. The open spaces in this once cluttered area seem to be a counterpoint to Victoria. From here I can see the Royal Academy and the rooftops of Savile Row. It seems apt to put on Don’t Let Me Down to drown out the noise. I imagine the rumble of Paul’s bass, John’s half shouted vocal, blasting the cobwebs off of a wintry London in 1969.
I arrive at Foyles via Soho Square, unaware that its former location next-door is now too a hole in the landscape. New luxury apartments and shops are being prepared, a large sign in gold serif font informs passersby. I remember buying faded history books here while at University, its staff at once utterly cool and wholly unhelpful.
This has been an unexpectedly personal jaunt. I can feel new pathways firing, new possibilities. I don’t want to take the usual route any more. I want to get lost to find out more.