This weekend I went out to eat, twice. On Friday I marched in to one of the trendiest, most popular restaurants in London at half past eight and asked for a table for two.
Instead of the usual performance – looking at me as if I were smeared in excrement and asking me, upper lip snarled to an unfeasible degree, "have you booked?" – knowing full well that if I had I would have said so, and that the mere act of asking such a preposterous question revealed to the entire restaurant that I was not merely mind numbingly stupid, but just so out of the social loop – the maître d' simply said, "of course, follow me."
On Saturday I went out with a group of friends. We turned up just before eight o'clock and left at about half past one in the morning. No one hassled us, no one hurried us. We ate and drank at our own pace. I tell you this not to impress you with my active social life but to illustrate something which has long puzzled me.
Why do people who live in cities choose to go away in August? I've lived in London all my life and the golden rule for city living – it applies, I am sure, to every other city – is simple: go away at any time other than August.
For 11 months a year we put up with all the downsides: too much traffic, too many people, restaurants behaving as though they are doing us a favour if they let us eat, too much noise, theatres sold out. We do it because the upsides of living in a city outweigh them. The mere presence of restaurants we can't get into makes city life seem more exciting.
We get used to accepting tables at seven because "we can squeeze you in, but we'll need the table back at seven-thirty". If booking things weeks in advance is the only way to get in, then that's what we do. If it takes 20 minutes to crawl along 100 yards because a lorry is double parked, then so be it. That's what city life entails.
And then along comes August. The commuters all disappear on holiday. I can just about understand why suburbanites take off – they're not really city dwellers anyway, so they never really care about the upsides. London is just somewhere to go for work. But what I can't understand is why anyone who lives within a 20-minute radius of London – people who live London, rather than merely working it – vanish on holiday too.
The traffic disappears. Half-hour journeys take 10 minutes. The tube is empty. Theatres not only have room, they let you have half-price tickets. You can arrive at any restaurant and be served within 10 minutes. You can walk into a pub at six o'clock on a Friday night and get a seat. Add in the Proms – the greatest music festival in the world – and London becomes damned near perfect in August.
I'm sitting in my study, looking out at a road just off Oxford Street. It's the middle of the day. All I can hear is the sound of a few people meandering. There hasn't been a car for minutes. It's almost silent. Magic.
For a month, the downsides all vanish, and only the upsides are left. It gets better. Those strange fools who decide to take their holidays in August, and to miss out on the one month when cities are anyone's for the taking, pay for the privilege. Plane tickets cost more, hotels charge a premium, and holiday restaurants double their prices.
When I go away – late autumn or early spring – the prices have fallen. I get two holidays – one at home, in London, and one away.
And best of all, when I tell people what they've missed, they don't really believe me. "London in August – how do you cope? God, it's bad enough the rest of the year. It must be unbearable." Absolutely. You stay away, and leave me to cope on my own.Reuse content