This week I am trying to get inside the head of a young woman who’s new to London

Learning that someone is new to the city you live in calls for reassessments of it; or even assessments.

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So the new inhabitant of the Hovel is here, and much though I might have been apprehensive of the effect her arrival would have on my own arrangements, I had failed to think of the effect it would have on hers. For she has never really been to London before: she is a country girl. And indeed there is something about her that is more suggestive of giving a horse a sugar lump than an aggressive driver the finger. (I had a lovely London moment the other day: a tourist coach charged through a red light on Gloucester Place as I was crossing it and I quickly gave the driver a proper V-sign; and he – fat, old, white – gave me one back. It kind of bonded us, you know?)

Learning that someone is new to the city you live in calls for reassessments of it; or even assessments. Having been born in London and then lived here for the vast majority of my life, I think about it roughly as much as I do about my knee: in other words, never, really, unless something goes wrong with it.

I have had some times of being plonked down in a new city and being left to get on with it. The longest time was in Paris, when I was barely 18. I couldn’t let language be too much of a problem because: a) I had an A-level in French and b) I didn’t know any French people, and the city, at least within the Boulevard Périphérique, was instantly livable, as if London had been purged of shitholes like East Finchley and shrunk to manageable proportions.

The second-longest was New York, which was like London on speed, in space and in the movies, also purged of shitholes like East Finchley but with shitholes that were amazingly dangerous instead. As for the university town I lived in, that was like being dunked in treacle, and you could only have felt urban alienation there if you’d been raised on an asteroid.

Anyway, I try to get inside the head of a young woman new to the city. And the first thing that strikes me is how indifferent London is to everyone; it is neither particularly friendly to visitors nor unfriendly, if you steer clear of the rush hours. It is, though, unnecessarily full of rich wankers, true, and when Daisy, for that is the new lodger’s name, mentions she has been walking around the place and says she has been to Soho, my thoughts about the city begin to coalesce; or, rather, curdle.

I used to love Soho; it was London’s pineal gland, somewhere deeply embedded in its folds, impossibly tiny but impossibly influential. It was where all the mischief of the city was concentrated, where its character was held. Daisy said she liked it; which made me think how much Soho must have changed.

I first really found Soho in my early twenties, forging bad habits at the counter of the Coach and Horses and then, during the afternoons when the pubs were shut, at the various louche private clubs that sprinkled the area, until the pubs opened again. Most vices I took to as a duck to water, save betting, whose pleasures I quickly realised I was immune to, and to whose risks I became immediately alive.

Now, Soho is tamed and governable. Largely. I find myself thinking of the late Sebastian Horsley, the top-hatted junkie, failed artist and champion of prostitutes, who was actually delightful company; probably the last Soho character, and even then a little too self-consciously voulu to qualify as such, but let’s be generous. Last Christmas, recovering from some shopping, and hiding from rain, I ducked into the Chinese restaurant diagonally opposite the Coach and saw there a framed photograph of Jeffrey Bernard, the last King of Soho Characters. As I waited for my hot and sour soup I asked the waiter if he knew who the man in the picture was, but he’d turned and left before I had finished the question. I thought it best not to press the matter, in case the management decided the photo was now superfluous and chucked it out. And the picture had been taken in his last years, when he really was unwell.

I doubt that such people exist any more. The job of their own extinction that their unhealthy habits could not achieve has been completed by economics. Which is a pity, really, for the characters who exist in a city’s cracks are often the grouting that holds it together. Now they’re gone – what now?

“Go to Hampstead Heath before the weather turns,” I tell Daisy. “It’s a bit like the country there.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown