At the end of the road you can stand halfway up the hill, last cigarette of the night in hand, and gaze across at the glittering towers on the Isle of Dogs. Greenwich has East London’s tongue stuck down its throat, a tongue full of massive erections. In daylight, the elegant red brick tower of the optimistically nordic interwar town hall, a single-storied lantern at its top, blends in at just the right height from the vantage point; at night it’s like a tall dark rectangle cut out of the cityscape.
The skyline is brutally impressive in the way cathedrals must once have been when nothing was taller. Where once I hated One Canada Square more than any other building, now I mildly regret that its companions aren’t similarly decked out with pyramids like Giza in the sky. R still hates to look at it because she works there, calls it the vortex of evil: looks out of her office window and sees the tower, travels in and out through hoardings of offensive financial advertising, but still laughs when she remembers the last Dr Who finale and spiralling hordes of Daleks being sucked back into that vortex at the top.
Things you can’t buy in Greenwich: a shower curtain (when I ask in Boots if there’s a pound shop nearby, the woman behind the counter says ‘I wish’); a microwave oven, or indeed any kind of white goods or consumer electronics; fresh non-English food that isn’t over-priced, over-fussed or out of a health-food shop. Things you can buy quite easily in Greenwich: scented candle sand, a substantial lunch’s worth of pie and mash for well under a fiver, and any number of books about old boats and sailors. I don’t know where poor people do their shopping: Lewisham, or Deptford perhaps. While the fat artery of multiple bus routes that connects Camberwell to Peckham to New Cross carries on to Lewisham, the 177 alone turns the corner at Deptford Bridge towards the river. Greenwich, in colour if not class, is part of the tongue of whiteness which circles around the back of Lewisham and then licks closely along the river towards Bermondsey.
I acquire some historical facts about Greenwich (Anglo-Saxon ‘green harbour’: the wich as in everywhere from Jaywick to Reykjavik) to dazzle friends and visitors with… both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born here. St Alphege’s (named after the archbishop of Canterbury kidnapped and murdered here by the Danes in 1012) has a Hawksmoor exterior; Boswell thought the place inferior to Fleet Street. Some facts I have thrust upon me, in honour of my Scottish roots: the Cutty Sark is named after a witch in Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, and indeed holds a horse’s tail in her hand. Celebrity facts, even: floppy-haired MDF-monger Laurence Llewellyn Bowen lives just down the hill in a suitably sturdy looking two-storey Victorian house set back from the road.
Contemporary signifiers litter the windows of newsagents advertising both nannies and children in need of nannies. Chelsea tractors and elaborate buggies abound, though so far the breeders seem to lack either the outright arrogance of the properly wealthy, or the desperate hipness that runs through the veins of Stoke Newington parents. On Royal Hill, Buenos Aires sells several delicious varieties of empanada, and clafoutis that more than outbalance a jog up the hill.
There are even a few personal signifiers. Unpacking my books, I find an OS paperback about the Greenwich Meridian, its purchase precisely dated to an unremembered visit to the Old Royal Observatory in May 1990. I’m happy to see that a hand-stencilled sticker of the face of Walter Benjamin, which I put on the back of a street sign two years ago is still here. I think I should take a picture from the top of the hill and photoshop Godzilla in, stomping HSBC and Citicorp (every city deserves its own Godzilla), but that would take time.