Seduced by the smoke

Jill Neville shares the urban ecstasy of an agony aunt who married the metropolis; Dear London: notes from the big city by Irma Kurtz, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99
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Why should Irma Kurtz ever get married? She's already married to London. Having walked out on New York and her flaming affair with Paris, she chose her poison, "ambivalent, self-searching, diffident, handsome, tolerant, widespread, whingeing, ironical, laid back, lazy old Smoke".

She is one of the spunky expats who arrived in London in the pre-swinging days when ladies still wore white gloves. And the city lifted her on wave after wave. But she was always too sharp and voluble to play the dozy hippie role convincingly.

Kurtz is rare among women because she loves great cities with an almost erotic passion: the glimpse of a courtyard, a lighted window, can make her tumescent for the never-to-be-totally possessed loved one. Not that she hasn't tried - she spent years burrowing in its boroughs, but is now ensconsed in the thick of it all, in Soho.

I first saw her striding into work in a big advertising agency in Berkeley Square. She was just over from Paris, sporting an existentialist pallor and a black plastic mac. Even the mac radiated urban romance.

But she was out of that boring job fast and soon found a more suitably eccentric niche with the chef, Robert Carrier, in Islington. One day she tossed off an article, "Love in Capital Cities," and sent it to Harpers Bazaar. When they sent it back she posted it off to the shiny new publication Nova.

Dennis Hackett, the fabled editor of Nova, phoned and asked her to join the staff. Irma Kurtz was in at last. "Journalism is to England as bullfighting is to Spain," she wries, "a daring national sport that offers youngsters with the guts for it a chance to pull themselves up out of pedestrian destinies. Hopeful scribblers from the English-speaking world are drawn to London the way hopeful toreros are to the Spanish capitals."

No more the longueur of office jobs. Overnight, all her bad habits became virtues: the talkativeness, the inquisitiveness, the unstoppable communicativeness. She interviewed every celeb in and out of town and wrote it all up with sleek audacity.

Being young, she was programmed for romance. She found that "the English lover uses a crab-like circumlocution, a sort of scuttling at the most basic declaration, which also serves to confuse amorous predators of the opposite sex".

But she's fond of the poor brutes, "stuck with flashy genitalia that can't be trusted to keep a secret, let alone keep faith". For this female Don Juan, men are lovable creatures but you wouldn't want to live with one. Instead, she had her beloved son by an artist equally ferocious about not getting married; this was not fashionable at the time.

Her pivotal friendships are curious, often floundering through lack of trust, or perhaps some self-protective reflex designed to keep lots of cool space around her psyche so the whole city can crowd in. She doesn't enjoy formality and is phobic about dinner parties, particularly the embalmed or bitchy kind that she imagines occur nightly in North London.

Kurtz is strictly a street and bar-room flaneuse, always talking, explicit, explosive, exponential, experimental, expostulatory, and excited. While there's the lovely dirty city, there's life - although she can see the squalor, it's not the main thing.

When Cosmopolitan made her an agony aunt, she found her metier. "I've been a busybody since the day I was born and it was about time someone paid for what I'd been handing out free all my life." She has been at it now for more than 20 years and still it doesn't bore or swamp her.

There's no whiff of phoniness about this love letter to London, written with bristling intelligence and all the ironies of hindsight, only occasionally falling into journalese. We can go to sleep knowing the city is throbbing away, stuffed with gangsters, drifters, bohemians, businessmen and trumpeting bores, presided over by our benevolent American-born agony aunt. Only this urban cowgirl, with her endless readiness to be intrigued could take the whole city to bed with her every night. That's love indeed.

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