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The Once and Future City

I was down in London yesterday for a conference. It was a mixed day with the interesting (some of the conference talks), the tedious (hold-ups on the M40 resulting in more than three hours on the London-bound coach) and the bizarre (while walking along the edge of the Thames, a couple of girls a few steps away were almost hit by a dead mouse, falling from the building above!).

On the way back to the coach stop, I took a wander through the West End. I found it fascinating to observe the strange combination of old and new. Many things — buildings, crowds and even the sounds and smells of the city — were very familiar to me. Those stood juxtaposed with a few things that were quite different. For example, there were lots of information poles with maps, the stands of Boris-bikes (not enough information for me to figure out to hire one to speed my journey though – I think the touch screen I tried might have been playing up) and a significant new development around Tottenham Court Road station that stopped me from cutting through directly from Charing Cross Road to Oxford Street. I had my trusty London map with me but didn’t need to use it even with the unexpected diversion, as enough of the layout was still in my head to figure out a detour.

The contrast between the remembered and the freshly encountered was cognitively dissonant, almost as if I had been beamed into an alternative reality version of the city I used to live in. The once and future city? But, then, perhaps all places are if you don’t visit them quite so often as you used to.

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