I was in the City last Wednesday - visiting a library, perhaps the least damaging activity carried on in the Square Mile that day - and when I left I took the Central Line from St Paul's Underground station. It wasn't until a couple of days later that I realised I had done this - walked to the station and gone in - without even bothering to look up to see the Cathedral. One of the most beautiful and evocative buildings that has ever been built, not even one that I see every day (and it is more than twenty years since I went inside) and yet I hadn't even thought of giving it a glance on my way past along the street. God's teeth. I was brought up in Legoland, in Stevenage, in a town of brute concrete and mute metal, and yet I passed this palace of the imagination without a single thought, let alone a second one. I was not proud of myself.
I remember being in Prague seven years ago and seeing, as I went into the city centre on the tram, the most beautiful, by repute, of all the capital cities of Europe. The people who lived there, however, saw it not - their gaze remaining on their newspapers, on each other, or on nothing in particular, choosing the latter chiefly because it was nothing in particular. But they, at least, had all the excuse they needed, had anybody been impertinent enough to ask them for once: who wants to live in a palace when one works like a slave?
I used to neglect the architecture of Oxford in much the same way. Despite living there for fifteen years I never really looked at it properly. I never saw it. There is a Tudor house on Cornmarket Street, leaning out over the main pedestrian thoroughfare in the city, one I must have travelled along many hundreds of times. But I had still been there for at least a decade before I noticed the house, and then only because I was going into the shop on the ground floor. Before then, I never saw it.
It had become an optician's.