Walking out the entrance of a hotel of a city you know only just so well is a very certain sensation, the drag of appearing to all but a very few as a resident of a place you never called home. To a certain kind of person, the offhand utterance “but you know (London)” is a compliment of the highest order, evoking in the receiver a giddiness of a variety more or less obliterated in the long arc since college, for reasons equal parts self and circumstance. To walk a long way across a metropole is a recalcitrant pleasure, decadent in its timelessness, unabated even by a hand-held device that tells you exactly where you are at every step and pulls in greetings and demands from across the chronosphere. Shanzhai flâneurs are we.
Five nights in a sparse room a stone’s throw from the South Ken tube. Alone in a city of conversations overheard or at most half-participated-in, a city in which underlying anxieties seep through the crevices of every speech-act, in which you rightfully obsess about how your scarf has been draped and delightedly wait two minutes, after a knowing rebuke from the butler, in the downstairs lobby of the member’s club for your appointment, a member, whom you know will not be late. In which the bookstores‘ stocks are rotated weekly, and the sale shelves sing of the issues of the day a few months ago. In which an Iranian-born fashion editor may regale you with tales of confounding his homeland’s pavilion staff at the Shanghai Expo by the combination of his peasant shoes and bespoke jacket. In which you you know just how you are to nod when the economist seated to your right tells you about her latest polemic against aid to Africa, or the editor explains, as the ceramic fumes mount, how people come to his magazine by stumbling upon its podcast. In which the new director of the most popular museum of this new century labors to flout to guests, gathered in his honor a few nights before the Frieze-week deluge, the duration of his connection to this place even as he is feted by two stylish benefactors, neither of whom is from there either.
“Art,” says the slowly aging Belgian YBA, “is gold for your walls,” fondling a thick impasto that hangs above the desserts. “No one wants to look at your books.”