As he loses his sight, Rob Crossan writes a love letter to the sounds of London

Rob Crossan
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Burgers and bus brakes: that’s when I know I’m home.

The aroma of chicken and fries tells me I’m safely, happily, back in London. The buses outside, meanwhile — angrily complying with traffic lights — always make me smile; the brakes like a thousand violin strings being worked on with a barbed wire bow.

London isn’t a movie to me any more. It’s a soundtrack with added odours.

I was born with the visual impairments of albinism and nystagmus. It means, bluntly, that I am almost blind and glasses don’t help a lot. When I asked my dad, at the age of 11, whether I might just have good enough vision to one day be able to drive around my home city of Chester, he pointed out of our living room window and asked me to read the number on the front of the approaching bus heading towards the Wirral and Liverpool.

My response was: ‘What bus?’

I knew from then on that the way I saw the world around me was markedly different to other people. And my sight has deteriorated since then. As has my life expectancy. This is due to myriad close encounters with drivers operating a laissez-faire attitude towards traffic lights. Not to mention the unreadable menus and emails in fonts so small as to require me to press my nose against screens and paper in the manner of a squinting Oliver Twist. Then there are the subsequent migraines that feel like a squadron of hornets are using my frontal lobe for stinging practice. All these things are going to get worse.

Now, the London I experience in my late 30s is markedly different from the one I dreamt of escaping to from my Northern teenage bedroom, and to the more visually clarified version in which I first arrived at the turn of the millennium. As my eyesight fades, London’s visual farrago is, daily, retreating away from me. The Hogarthian faces of black cab drivers on the Strand. The miasma of tropical fruit and vegetables on the streets of Brixton. The beige haze of gilets and Jack Wills on Clapham High Street on a Thursday evening. All (the latter thankfully) are now no more than barely discernible smudges for me.

So I’ve started listening to London. Touching London. Smelling London instead. It’s all I have. And, most of the time, I’m finding it’s all I need.

It’s only when I leave London that I notice just how unique the sounds and smells of the capital are. There’s a flat, hollow certainty to sound beyond the Tube map. I feel it: the hushed satisfaction of order and routine. Afternoon pubs where the loudest sound is a beer pump making a bronchial cough as the last of the lager drips into a smeared pint glass. And train stations where whippets of wind canter past my cheeks on their way to busier climes.

Outside of London I feel I’m listening to FM radio; clear and untrammelled. Whereas what I crave is the shortwave chaos of London. I can’t read Braille. And, as far as a document of my own life goes, I really don’t need to. The scars and cuts on my body are testament to a thousand bruised vignettes. The surprisingly placed lamp post on York Way, the deceptively mirrored nightclub entrance in Bow, the vengeful corner of an open kitchen cupboard door at home; all give me oft-painful reminders of a London that gives especially short shrift at times to those whose senses aren’t in full and continuous working order.

Yet I won’t leave this place. ‘London belongs to me,’ wrote Norman Collins more than 70 years ago. Of course he was wrong. London belongs to nobody and everybody. And it’s the emotional range of London as well as the aural one that keeps me here. One day industrial mathcore, the next a lush, string-dripping ballad; this city is an album I simply have to play through to the end.

Forty years from now you might see me, scuffed shoes padding down Brixton Road, fumbling for my Freedom Pass, still listening to the soundtrack of this city, ear cocked to the rhythms of London: always wanting more, never quite keeping in time.