Today witnessed my brief, unscheduled and unwilling return to London, and a reminder of South Asia’s gargantuan and occasionally absurd bureaucracy.
I applied for my Pakistan visa right at the last minute. This was partly down to personal disorganization and laziness, but also partly because visas are only valid for six months after they’ve been issued, so there’d have been no point applying much earlier, or the visa would have expired before I even left Europe. Nonetheless, I wished I’d given myself a bit more time when they told me to go away, and come back with a full itinerary for my entire trip. That, plus all the other endorsements and certifications they demanded, is why I was awake for the entire weekend before I left London, researching, blagging and – well, mostly just making it up.
And I hadn’t banked on having to go back and pick my passport up in person. I now appreciate how convenient it is to live in London. Try as I might, there wasn’t any solution to the problem that didn’t involve getting up while it was still dark, spending £60 on a day return to London from Mid Wales, and sitting on trains for ten hours altogether, just in order to queue for a couple of hours in a crowded room with no windows.
I didn’t want to go back to London, having already taken my leave of it. I felt the same embarrassment I have a couple of times recently, saying a lengthy and emotional farewell to someone, and then running into them in the street the very next day. When I got off the train it was dull and rainy – the kind of weather everyone expects of London, but which is actually quite rare. I didn’t feel the surge of recognition and nostalgia that I’d feared and anticipated, though of course, I still found my way down to Lowndes Square without even thinking about it. Perhaps, when you know something as intimately as I do London, it loses most of its ability to surprise you.
Or perhaps it’s that things start to become flat and meaningless once you’ve detached yourself from them. When I look at the photos I took when I was at university, I can’t help but notice that, in terms of buildings and landscapes, almost nothing has changed from the photos that people took 30 years ago, and 100 years ago, and students today are still taking the same photos. When I was there I found the place endlessly scintillating – now I look back at my little life, so much like the lives of everyone else who’s spent three years tottering around the same buildings, and somehow find the whole thing incredibly boring. As soon as the last person left with whom I’d had any connection, I lost interest in the place. Now a whole new crowd of students are having the time of their life and, while I know it’s no less genuine than mine, I find it hard to sympathize with their experience.
And maybe London will be the same. I didn’t see any couriers I knew on the way down through Marylebone, Mayfair and Knightsbridge. I dropped into the shop where my housemate works, to surprise her, but today was her day off, and she’s leaving in a week anyway. People come and go very quickly, and it might only take a few months of absence for London to stop being a village populated by everyone I know, and to go back to being a large, impersonal, unfriendly city. My old haunts will hold onto their old ghosts forever, but often they’ll be drowned out by the din of all the new people who’ve taken their place.
Eventually, after a certain amount of polite argument (the staff at the Pakistan High Commission are some of the most friendly and human I’ve ever dealt with (and as a courier I dealt with a lot), but they still insist on sticking to the Rules) and a lot of queuing, I found myself poorer by £104 and richer by one visa, which permits me to enter Pakistan on any date up to the 22nd of February next year, and to remain there for up to 60 days.
(There is a slight problem here. I want to exit Pakistan via the Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang, but it doesn’t open till the 1st of May. That means that, even if I enter Pakistan on the last possible day permitted by my visa, I’ll still have to be there for 69 days before I’m able to leave, which is nine more than I’m allowed. But I’m not going to worry about that too much now. Things have fallen into place pretty well so far, so I’m sure a solution will present itself in due course.)
I had charmed and bullied the gentleman behind the counter into giving me back my passport two hours early, so that I could catch my train home, but I then deliberately missed it (gambling successfully on London Midland not noticing or caring if I caught a later one) in order to catch up with some old friends from my Delhi days, whom I hadn’t seen for over two years, and whose diary now overlapped with mine for precisely an hour. We drank bland lattes in the lobby of their Holiday Inn, and could just as well have been back in Delhi – or anywhere else in the world.
And it struck me that I’m no longer a Londoner – unless it is in the nature of Londoners to be transient and placeless and coincidental, which perhaps it is. I’ve wondered in the past whether the city isn’t just made up of millions of people following their own little meandering lines, and only given meaning at the points where those lines coincide. For a working cycle courier, this will happen every couple of minutes, meaning that eventually every street and square will be rich with significance. For most normal people, these coincidences will only usually happen in the immediate locality of their home, commute or workplace. And for this non-Londoner, today, there were barely any coincidences at all, which is perhaps why the place looked so flat, grey and inert.
I’ll next see my Delhi friends back in Delhi, or somewhere else in the world. London isn’t the only place coincidences can happen, planned or otherwise. But I do wonder if I’ll ever live anywhere like this again. And whether I’ll eventually miss it.