The view from my window here on the fifth floor of Southern Court in Penkhull is not quite so fascinating as those I had when I lived on the tenth story of Butler House, a block in Limehouse, East London.
There, to the east, from my kitchen, I could see all across East London and out into Essex, and across the Thames into Kent; to the west, from my living room, an infinity of towers, steeples, rooftops, stretching into the west of London beyond the horizon.
This was a so-called ‘pent-house’ flat, meaning that a block of six small flats had been fitted on to the roof of the main block.
This meant that we could go on the main block roof and see London stretching off in every direction.
There was also a ladder going up to the ‘penthouse’ roof, which allowed me – I’m not aware that any of my neighbours did this as well – to stand up high above the streets and see the whole 360% panorama of London with a single look.
From there I could see the great power-station cooling towers that then stood in Barking to the east, all in the same eyeline as Shooter’s Hill in Kent; there was also the blue height of Sydenham Hill way to the south, the unique silhouettes of the Houses of Parliament and St Paul’s cathedral to the west, and Alexandra Palace and the high lands at the northern edge of London.
I could also see the winding Thames, the whole bend of the river from the Pool of London to Limehouse Reach as it flowed southward round the Isle of Dogs with its tall cranes towering over the curves of the warehouse rooves.
And I could hear the noise of city coming from everywhere , the wonderful soft growling in the daytime, and the whispering at night.
London is so massive that from my viewpoint, as high as it was, it reached from horizon to horizon, or even, to east and west, far beyond it. And more than that: there was a fascination with the view.
It was my city; I had been raised there, had lived and worked there all my life, had experienced my fair share of joys and tragedies there; I knew it well, north (where I was a child), east, south and west. I knew its landmarks, its shopping-centres, its parks, its street -markets, its docklands, as well the obscure back-streets where people actually lived and laboured, anonymous to everyone but themselves and their own communities.
This was the city where my family, my friends, and indeed my lovers were. I spoke the language of London. I sang its songs.
And yet, when I looked down on it from the great height of the roof of Butler House, I realised then as I am very aware of now that as much as I thought I knew about London, in fact I knew hardly anything. There were vast areas of London I never got to see, except maybe for brief glimpses from buses or trains.
And the history of London – I could give you a brief account of that history as you might read it in a book; but of the lives of its people and the way they lived them, the incidents and events that gave those lives substance, the written, painted, or photographic accounts that gave them significance, are so very many, taken together telling a human story so complex and varied, so comical, so tragical, so dramatic, so strange, that no-one, even in two lifetimes, could grasp it all.
I know that because, out of sheer wonder, I have tried.
Even now, having lived away from London for approaching half my life, I still think of myself as a Londoner, and I still recall the London I was raised in with something more than just affection. I don’t live there of course, simply because I am of an age where making such a complicated move would be far too costly, and far too difficult. (The story of how I managed to get from London to Stoke-on-Trent in the first place is a whole other story, and not a simple one.)
So, from here, my little cottage in the sky, I can see – from left to right – the tree-lined fields of the moorlands rising up ; a church, a town-hall, a sloping grassy hill with a radio-tower, a greened-over slag-heap, the countless rooves of suburban houses, and some bleak warehouses. A somewhat tedious view.
This is no reflection on the good people of Stoke-on-Trent who are justly proud of their city for its incredible history and the lasting reputation it has won in the world; and I have my own friends here after all.
And it also has the advantage of every part of it being adjacent to the vastness of the Staffordshire moorlands, which are as beautiful and as dramatic as any other such region on this island, and which I have come to know for their refreshing silence.
But none of this is London, and as a Londoner, that is something of which I will always be very aware.

One thought on “FIFTH FLOOR.

  1. Enjoyed your memoir, Richard. As you know, I live just across the river from your Docklands home and much has changed in the years since you left. It’s still fascinating.


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