Arts & Books

Savour the silence of the Big Smoke

Even the National Gallery is deserted for the last 10 minutes before closing (Photo: PA)

London is at its emptiest between Christmas and New Year – when the commuters stay at home, the rich have retired to their second homes in the country and the not-so-rich are taking time off.

Bicycling from north London to St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas Day, I always have the city to myself, except for the odd car doing the last leg of Father Christmas’s deliveries.

Silence and emptiness are underrated thrills, particularly in places like London that are often so unbearably crowded.

But however crammed a city, however packed the Tube is, there are always urban spots that are empty. How I love them!

Recently, I biked along the Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden – nearly two miles – and I didn’t see a soul. OK, it was dark, but it was only six in the evening. Muggers were thin on the ground: they don’t like it when it’s cold, either, and there’s no one around to mug, anyway.

It wasn’t quite silent: there was still the faint swish-swish of traffic as I pedalled under the road bridges; the birds in the Snowdon Aviary squawked a bit in a half-hearted, muted way. Nor was it lonely: the emptiness was too thrillingly rare for that.

Even in the most famous, usually crowded places, you can have them to yourselves if you choose the right moment. The Little Cloister of Westminster Abbey is always empty – these days, you don’t even find the keen child smokers from Westminster School there. It used to be a favourite spot for them when I was at the school in the late 80s. We worried less about our health in those days.

Westminster’s back streets, and the winding little passages of the City of London, are also deserted at the weekend. When the offices close down, the streets empty.

But the churches are open. Go to St Mary Abchurch – one of Wren’s loveliest, a miniature dome up a little lane near Monument Tube – for its 4pm Sunday service, and you’re back in 17th-century London. Except it’s a lot emptier now than it was then.

Even the National Gallery is deserted for the last 10 minutes before closing. I first learnt the empty gallery ruse when I lived in Florence 20 years ago. I nipped into the Uffizi at half past six, 20 minutes before closing, and had Botticelli’s Primavera to myself for a heart-stopping quarter of an hour. Tourists always allow themselves too much time for the greatest hits of a city – and push off to the nearest cafe long before their allotted time is up. That’s the time when we emptiness addicts pounce.

It wasn’t just the Uffizi that emptied while the rest of Florence filled up. Wherever the tourist crowd went, it travelled in one vast river preferring to flow down major avenues and across famous bridges. Move one street – or one bridge – west or east, and you found the real, half-empty life lived by Florence natives.

There’s a logic to the two lives: the tourist’s crammed one and the local’s empty one. When we’re out of our comfort zone, we seek the proximity of fellow concerned foreigners, driven by a collective purpose – surely they must be making for the Duomo, too? When we’re in our own home towns, we follow deeply individual routes – from the dry-cleaner, to work, to a favourite bar – dictated by nothing but our own wishes.

The Mediterranean has its deserted spots, too, as I’ve been discovering over the last few years, following in Odysseus’s footsteps for a book. Yes, many resorts have been destroyed by horrible holiday tower blocks, but plenty of Homeric spots are utterly unchanged, too.

I didn’t need to use much poetic (or journalistic) licence to imagine myself back on the wine-dark sea, heading home to Penelope, as Homer plucked his lyre in the background. I often remembered Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” – which pictures an ageing Odysseus on Ithaca, yearning to set sail again – and the line, “Though much is taken, much abides”. True of the often-empty Mediterranean, too – not least at Odysseus’s Ithaca palace, which three friends and I had to ourselves last autumn.

This year will be a full one for me – not least because of that book on the Odyssey coming out, and the election. I’m a politics freak and I will be glued to events. Emptiness and silence are only thrilling in contrast to regular doses of sociability and excitement.

But even in the build-up to the closest election since, well, the last one, there will be quiet moments in the news cycle, in among all the hectic madness. You can always find emptiness and calm if you seek them out. May there be plenty of both for you in 2015.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (02/01/15)