London changes like a stop-motion cartoon. I haven’t lived here full time since 1997, but I come back to the UK for three months every year. It’s like seeing how other people’s children have grown. I had a strange feeling the other day driving through a nice grungy neighbourhood near Shepherd’s Bush and thinking “Hey, this looks like London”, which made me realise that a lot of London doesn’t anymore. I worked out that the reason I thought it looked like London was the dilapidated shops. Shopfronts have become really nice now. If you’re too dilapidated a Starbucks will move in and eat you.
I grew up near Croydon, which I thought would be London by now. In my book of non-fiction, The View From The Cheap Seats, I wrote about a second-hand bookshop I went to as a schoolboy, Plus Books in west Croydon. They sold tame pornography for the embarrassed businessman, but also comics and science-fiction. As a 14-year-old you’d get barked at by the man behind the counter who worried you’d go near the porn.
As a starving freelance journalist – and I really was a starving freelance journalist – I could afford to be in London. I’m not sure that the equivalent of me now would be able to do that – friends who do that are in squats and shares where 12 people are in a space that four people should be in.
There are a lot of things about London that have changed that I love, and that are a lot nicer, but on the other hand, I miss the true grunge. I suspect that the next thing I write will be London-based and will be about London just getting a little bit too clean. Where does the dirt go? Thirty years ago I had a room in Edgware for £25 a week. It could only fit my bed, my desk and my books, but that didn’t matter.
I remember as a kid reading GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon Of Notting Hill and Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, which would mythologise parts of London. I’d visit where these stories happened. Walking down Baker Street – even though there was no such person as Sherlock Holmes and until an extension was built, there was no 221B – there’s a bit of magic associated with that.
When I wrote Neverwhere in 1996 I had one huge ambition, which was that for anyone who read Neverwhere before visiting London, I wanted to make London a bit more magical. The glorious thing about the size of the place is that everyone’s London is true. There are just 15 million people having their own London.
Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, scored by Jarvis Cocker, is on Sky Arts tonight at 9pm
An international festival of light
Dinner in a decommissioned 1967 underground carriage
Half-price brunch and a HUGE fried chicken burger