The French call it la rentre, the homecoming, the return, the reopening of schools, of restaurants and boutiques after their fermeture annuelle. It means September in Paris, when the Parisians are refreshed and cheerful, the streets are cleaner, the massive wooden doors look newly painted.
Every September, I feel the call of my inner rentre. It begins as soon as I drive away from the school gates. As the tears and the guilt roll away, a feeling of liberation takes over and I head towards London where, intoxicated by diesel fumes and freedom, I enter the giddy world of double tall cappuccinos at Starbucks, sandwiches from Pret a Manger, all-day bus tickets, Daunt Books, museums, anonymity and long walks.
You’ve heard about urban legends, but here’s a rural myth: if you live in the country, you will walk miles each day and become as lean and fit as Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen. The reality is that you walk far more in London. Now I practice urban attitude, imitating those City bankers who stride around in Nicole Farhi suits and Nikes, slipping into their Ferragamos as they wait for the lift to take them to the 40th floor. My taupe slingbacks in my shoulder bag, I wear grey running shoes, all the better for walking from Sloane Square to Piccadilly.
I began my rentre with the Howard Hodgkin exhibition at the Tate. Exhilarating paintings and interesting looking people studying them with rapt appreciation. As I neared the end, I looked up and saw the artist himself, looking handsome and artistic (not much like an Old Etonian.) I smiled and mumbled: ‘Congratulations. A wonderful show’. He smiled and mumbled: ‘Thank you’.
The presence of the artist gave me an illusion of worldliness and I instantly wanted to sign up to be a ‘Member of the Tate’ as though belonging to the Tate was like having a club in town. It feels more suitable for a country dweller than belonging to the National Trust, especially after I took the Damien Hirst boat up the river to Tate Modern (a mere £3.25 from Tate to Tate), followed Kandinsky’s path to abstraction and ate lunch pan-fried skate and Pinot Gris overlooking the Thames and St Paul’s. Afterwards, I walked across the Millennium Bridge, wishing they had built bridges like this all over London instead of the Dome. Here’s the irony. City dwellers romanticise country life; country folk romanticise city life.
The view from a London bus shops, parks, churches and people makes me feel twice as alive. And I see things that Londoners don’t seem to notice. Serious newspapers have doubled in price as free newspapers blow across the cityscape like a plague. Sirens wail all the time. Restaurants considered cool and chic (Racine, Luciano’s I could go on) have no non-smoking areas. Everyone who works in Starbucks is from Latvia, Poland, Brazil and they are fast, courteous and attractive.
Black taxis are no longer black. Cyclists both the careful ones and the kamikaze pilots are everywhere. Ken Livingston runs London like Hezbollah, a little fiefdom impervious to the Government, his ‘Londoners are One’ banners his nationalist flag, but the congestion charge has not uncongested the city. Meanwhile, the leaves on the ginko trees, the oak of the city, are beginning to turn gold.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on 21 September 06, 2006.