Maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner

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The Independent Online
SUNDERLAND - I've just got back from three days in London and I want to record my thoughts as quickly as possible. I normally get down to the capital for a day or two every two or three years, but this time the gap has been longer. (I was in the London Marathon earlier this year, but that doesn't really count - apart from the backdrop, it wasn't really a trip to London at all.)

I spent three days being a tourist, living largely in the company of tourists. The first thing I was aware of was the level of sexual activity. No intercourse on public lawns or anything like that, but I'd forgotten - or never noticed - the heightened level of sexual awareness London seems to demand. People were parading, or preening, or pairing off all the time. There are possibly fewer underwear advertisements on the escalators than there used to be, but the large posters for the film Map of the Human Heart came as a shock.

The foreign visitors were exhibiting holiday behaviour, and the natives seemed physically sharper and more involved in their bodies and appearances than I'm used to. Maybe it's a combination of provincialism and my new status as a menopausal male, but I felt that either I should pull my stomach in a bit or wear a grubby mac and spectate properly.

I finally made it to the Tate for the first time, and got close enough to a Blake plate to smell it, had it not been in a case. Blake had handled it, inscribed it, cursed it, inked it, and here it was. I went to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, and was oddly reassured by the sheer depth of competence and freshness on display - all those ideas, all those skills, the fruit of a year's work in Britain.

I saw the Le Corbusier car in the Design Museum, and in the National Portrait Gallery I more or less ignored the permanent collection to spend time in the competition show, which I found amazing. (Fancy saying 'I more or less ignored the permanent collection', in the same way that you earmark an article in a Sunday paper to come back to later, knowing that you probably never will - or, in this case, not for several years at least.)

All this is fine, that is what a capital is for. It also rubs off a bit of its pollen on to you. Coming back to Sunderland, I felt that I had acquired some of the city's gloss and self-importance, and wondered whether I should wear a badge reading: 'I'm Just Back From London, Where I Saw Amazing Things.' All right, so I didn't buy that Armani jacket, or anything at all from Muji, but I still feel an urge to tell people about my trip. Possibly tell people who have just got back from Turin or EuroDisney, and can't possibly have had an experience like the one I had.

The day after I returned home I was in town when five security guards arrested a shoplifter in Boots. The crowds watching the event were bigger, and smelled worse, than anything Covent Garden had to offer. Last night I was woken up by a house alarm, then running footsteps, then an unidentifiable crash, then someone yelling. It is a regular game, trying to string together coherent narrative from disembodied night noises.

People come up from the South to visit and are pleasantly amazed. The house prices are still sources of amusement and, yes, there is a decent beach five minutes' drive away. But the sea is cold and doesn't carry with it the chance of a day trip to France for the same price as a CD, and the real cost of the house includes crazy levels of car crime and unemployment.

So why am I not getting on my bike? I'm honestly not sure my reasons are all that good. Perhaps the reality of life in an affordable maisonette in Catford or Hendon is not particularly metropolitan. Perhaps I feel that I don't really belong.

In the National Gallery coffee shop I eavesdropped on a conversation. The woman could not decide whether to go on a buying trip to San Francisco for a gallery that she knew was corrupt, or take up an offer of a week's sailing in

Italy. Her male companion had come over to visit a really nice man he had known in New York who was dying of Aids. I felt as if I had been allowed

into the senior common room for 10 minutes.

I'll be doing the Great North Run again this September. It's a popular social event, but it won't be quite the same after running the London marathon. I can't decide whether or not to wear the T-shirt that says 'I survived the NutraSweet 1993 London Marathon'. It might seem a bit pretentious. But part of me would like to make a statement.

Margaret Maxwell is on holiday.

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