Life and loss in London

Lucy Purdy reflects on spring in the city, where nature and humanity collide

Sculpted by thousands of years of human activity, but by hills and rivers too; man and nature collide in London like nowhere else. The city – grey, green and blue – holds the telling of 8.5 million human stories. Innumerable beginnings and endings unfold each day. Ideas fly on the wind at every turn.

Spring is showing its colours on the canal to the east, where I duck with relief, leaving behind for now the ceaseless duplication: houses, offices, warehouses, bars, newsagents, chicken shops, car washes. Here the air is suffused with wood smoke and river murk; welcomingly raw smells that calm the mind. A chilli plant sprouts from a boot on a barge roof while, below, a mallard swerves a drifting Thai Sweet Chicken crisp packet. Cacti sit in polished baked beans tins, lined up on a windowsill.

Boats called Poppy, Lily and Rosie float, adorned with folky flowers and lace, curvaceously brooding on the waterway. Footloose and Dreamcatcher (their menfolk perhaps) are moored nearby.

Millions can see the dandelions defying architectural masterplans; the gutters in which leaf litter and life litter combine

The cycle path urges: ‘drop your pace’. If only it were that easy! Even under the towpath, high voltage cables snake their way through the city, crackling with capitalist zeal. Up above, cranes make silhouettes against the pale rose sky. Fragile and lurching, they look like monochrome dinosaurs, stranded in an unfamiliar epoch.

“Ripe plums!” are for sale though, seven for £1, and All Stock MUST Go as a pigeon pecks at a Wotsit and bored commuters line up for buses: smoking, phoning, Candidly Crushing. I make my way home on the underground where each carriage is a museum of people, curated by proximity. Every detail compelling. Every corner exhausting. Everything is bleak.

Everything is beautiful. Maybe this place, where traffic roars and seagulls craw in communion, holds the greatest chance for reconnection. Relentlessly, its streets are pounded by the footsteps of the world. Millions can see the dandelions defying architectural masterplans; the moths gorging themselves en masse under street lights; the gutters in which leaf litter and life litter combine.

Among so much loss is so much beauty on which we can sharpen our senses. So many reasons to look again, in this dying land, this living city.

Illustration by Hannah Bailey