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photo © Jonathan Lovekin

There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London. The manner of life, the distances, the climate, the very multitude of the population in which the individual is lost, all this together with the absence of Continental diversions conduces to the same effect. One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the dullness of London. The life here, like the atmosphere here, is bad for the weak, for the frail, for one who seeks a prop outside himself, for one who seeks cordiality, sympathy, attention; the moral lungs here must be as strong as the physical lungs, whose task is to get rid of the sulphuric acid in the smoky fog. The masses are saved by the struggle for daily bread, the commercial classes by their absorption in heaping up wealth, and all by the fuss and hurry of business; but nervous and romantic temperaments, fond of living among their fellows, of intellectual sloth and emotional idleness, are bored to death and fall into despair.

Wandering lonely about London, through it’s stony lanes and through its stifling passages, sometimes not seeing a step before me for the thick, opaline fog, and running against flying shadows – I lived through a great deal.

In the evening when my son had gone to bed, I usually went out for a walk; I scarcely ever went to see anyone; I read the newspapers and stared in taverns at the alien race, and stood on the bridges across the Thames.

On the one hand, the stalactites of the Houses of Parliament would loom through the darkness ready to vanish again, on the other, the inverted bowl of St Paul’s…and street-lamps….street lamps without end in both directions. One city, full fed, lay sleeping, while the other, hungry, was not yet awake – the streets were empty, nothing could be heard but the even tread of the policemen with his lantern. I used to sit and look, and my soul would grow quieter and more peaceful. And so through all this I came to love this dreadful ant-heap, where every night a hundred thousand men know not where they will lay their heads, and the police often find women and children dead of hunger beside hotels where one cannot dine for less than two pounds.

Alexander Herzen 1924-27

photo © Jonathan Lovekin
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