London Prowl

London in the summer: tourist buses clogging Park Lane, unseasonal rain in seasonal heat, sidewalks sticky with spilt ice cream, shameless Englishmen with their shirts off, audiences sweating quietly in muggy theaters, the Underground a crammed, stifling sauna … What to do?

In summer, it seems to me, London strives vainly to be an ersatz southern city – a pseudo Madrid or Rome – tables and chairs suddenly appearing on unsuitably narrow sidewalks, along with street vendors and inappropriate markets. I’ve lived in London for fifteen years but for the past five have quit the place at the end of June and not returned until the beginning of September.

The problem is that London is not built for even modest summer heat. English houses are too upholstered, too insulated – designed for cold outside and warmth within. My house, built in the second half of the nineteenth century, becomes insufferably hot on the mildest summer day, and no amount of ventilation appears to make any difference. The same applies to public buildings. True, some air-conditioning has arrived here and there, but fundamentally, the Londoner’s response to warmer weather remains unchanged since folk first settled here: Remove some clothing and open the window.

But in the autumn and winter, the city’s true character reimposes itself; the brick and stone, the solid heft and confident mass of the buildings, respond best to crisp mornings and dark evenings, the tug of wind and hint of damp and cold. This is when the old romance of the city sets in, and it is also the best time to explore.

London is vast. Few great cities retain their essential character over such a huge area. Walk for an hour in any direction from Piccadilly Circus, and you have barely traversed a fraction of the place. Walk two hours, and you are still in a London borough and there are miles to go before you reach the city’s limits. Try doing that in Paris or Rome, and you will find yourself in the suburbs.

London offers all the pleasure and distractions – both venal and orthodox – of any great metropolis, but I think its ambulatory attractions are unrivaled. The “street prowl” was a phrase invented by the English writer and critic Cyril Connolly, who had an intense love-hate relationship with the city, alternately fleeing it and being inevitably drawn back, usually as winter approached. Here is Cyril Connolly street-prowling through southwest London in 1928: “Windy twilight in the Fulham road, the roar of buses, the November dusk, walking away from Elm Park gardens in the eddy of fast falling leaves … walking alone on this windy evening, the lamps just lit and wet with rain, alone along the broad street, brown street with lights of gold.” This is the authentic feel and this is the authentic London that – 70 years on – still happily exists.

And winter, above all, is the time to stride out, almost as Dickens did – booted, coated, gloved, and scarfed – and roam the streets. It has been said that London can be defined as 90 villages in search of a city. I live in southwest London, in the “village” of Chelsea. Beside me lie Belgravia and South Kensington. To walk for miles through these three districts – randomly following your nose – is to come to know this section of the city in a way that no tourist itinerary can match (the experience can be replicated everywhere – Hampstead, Islington, Notting Hill, Bloomsbury, even further afield in Chiswick and Limehouse, Greenwich and Highgate). You will come across landmarks – parks, museums, churches, Harrods – but you will also discover lost mews, or the huge Gothic necropolis of Brompton Cemetery, or the perfect stuccoed sweep of Egerton Terrace, or Tedworth Square, where Mark Twain lived, or suddenly turn a corner and there is the river, broad and brown, the air mysteriously fresher, as if washed clean by the Thames’s powerful tidal flow.

Everything comes into its own once the days shorten and the weather cools. Take one celebrated example: pubs. Summer pubs appear to me as being particularly rebarbative – doors thrown open, the thump of music, half-clothed patrons spilling loudly onto the sidewalk. Pubs are winter places: closed, windows glowing yellow in the evening gloom, the dark wood, the gleam of glass and pewter responding to the chill outside. Gratifyingly, recent years have seen a significant number of London’s pubs returning to their Victorian paradigm – no Muzak, no games, hearty food, real ale, real fires in real grates. London, that most private of cities – a city of houses, after all, not apartments – always had a semi-covert communal life that centered on the pub, and we have been lucky to see it returning in kind.

But it needs to be blustery and cold so that the interior warmth both beckons and consoles. This is true also of restaurants and theaters and all those places of entertainment that great cities boast. It all changes once winter comes and old London, mother London, assumes her northern garb. Cyril Connolly again: “Autumn is the season to which I am called like a vocation. In these first days of mist and feathery dusk and falling leaves, my mind begins to stir like a boat raised from mud by the tide.” It can get you that way.

William Boyd’s novels include The New Confessions and A Good Man in Africa. His latest, Armadillo (Knopf), is out this week.

London Prowl