I remember the first time I ever saw you. I was ten, and on a coach with my Gran. Nose pressed to the window, motorway became houses became sights and sounds and smells. “Look”, she said, “that’s Speaker’s Corner”. We went to Hamley’s and spent a deliriously happy afternoon looking at helicopters whizzing through the air and playing the display games, a riot of colour and movement and excitement. She asked me to pick a present, I chose a big yellow marbled die, that felt smooth and heavy in my hand and rolled like a dream. “Don’t you want a stuffed toy?” she said. I didn’t.
You were always somewhere far off, mystical, somewhere to be reached at the end of a line, at the end of a train track, or a motorway. On a visit with my parents once I walked down Whitehall staring at the pavement, oblivious to the history around me, oblivious to that black door marked “10” that would come to be what I worked for. My Dad told me to look up, to take it all in. I didn’t see the point, and scuffed my shoes.
When my parents drove me to London, to live, it was September 2004. There were two suitcases in the boot, and I had nowhere to live. I don’t know why I wasn’t apprehensive. I thought it would all fall into place, I suppose, like everything always did. I found a flat in Brixton and convinced the landlady to lease me a room, because I had no-where else to go. My parents weren’t happy, leaving me in Brixton, imagining riots and 1980s BBC footage, but the truth is I lived at the nice end, overlooking a park, in a flat with high ceilings. I was in London, I’d made it, I had a job, this was the beginning of the rest of my life. I took the bus to work, the 155, and sat at the front at the top, and when I crossed Waterloo Bridge my heart jumped in my chest, as it never fails to do at that magnificent vista, and I knew something was beginning.
London, you were a shit for those first few months. You took all my excitement, all my apprehension, all my naivety and threw it back in my face. You gave me a cold, miserable autumn and an even colder winter, in a lonely, disorienting city, with only a couple of friends, a job I didn’t understand, and not enough money. I cried a lot, standing in unfamiliar streets and roundabouts, disoriented. I moved from Brixton to Tooting to move in with two friends, and one of them, my anchor in this unfamiliar place, got stopped at the border and refused entry into the country.
London, you cost more than I could pay for. I lived beyond my means. You exhausted me. I was constantly lost, constantly tired, cross at taking an hour to get anywhere, angry at the sheer pace of London life and the arrogance of Londoners. I was miserable and I was lonely and I hated you and thought you were my biggest mistake. I wanted rambling yellow roses and a village and fields to walk in, to think. I wanted quiet.
And then Spring came. Things turned around. I discovered that there was more to you than the Northern Line. I fell in love with a boy and with it, I started to fall in love with you, too. Bits and pieces of you. The Lebanese cafe in Colliers Wood. The wild commons. The south Indian restaurants in Tooting. There was more to you than the South Bank. You got into my blood and under my skin and I couldn’t shake you off. Slowly, surely, I learnt how to handle you. On how to never assume I would know you, get to grips with you, figure you out, say I’ve “done” London (is there a more patronising term out there?). To respect the multiplicity of people who lived around me, their lives, their businesses, their dreams, what drives them.
In January 2007 I moved to Bow, E3. I’d gone from standing in the middle of a showhome on the phone panicking about mortgages saying “but Dad…what if we break up?” and him saying “you’ll be on the property ladder. Worry about that when it happens” to owning a two-bedroom flat in E3. I loved the East End from the off. It’s not pretty. No yummy mummies would go within a mile of the place. It’s unapologetic. It’s drenched in history. I fell in love with Victoria Park, and taught myself to run one May, past canals and the barges and the people frying bacon sandwiches and drinking coffee on Sunday mornings. I pounded the streets and trained for a half marathon, learning about my body and my limits along the Thames up to Tower Bridge. I went to Roman Road market every Saturday, with the mix of East End market traders and refugees and poverty and wished I’d written down the stories I heard and saw. I discovered Shoreditch, home of the best brunches and markets and cafes in London. I learnt to drive in Bethnal Green, start, stop, left turn past the poorest of the poor. We discovered where to eat; the places that look like run-down cafes serve up the most authentic Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian food. Friends came to stay knowing we would know where to go, what to see, where to eat the best food of your week for small change.
London, I’ve been with you seven and a half years. I’ve walked what feels like most of them. I’ve walked your streets, your alleyways, crisscrossed your maps, and by doing that understood how you’re laid out, who else shares you with me, their lives and their stories, far better than I could have done sitting in a car driving from village to town. I still get insulted buying a round in one of your pubs and wish I could have change from a tenner. I still get sick of your pace and want to smack commuters over the head with a copy of the Metro. I still pine for silence, and to see the sky at night. And I go away for weekends, and get both those things, and then miss you.
We might be buying a house in Highams Park. It’s E4, but I’m not kidding myself, it’s not central London anymore. There’s a lake. There’s Epping Forest round the corner. No more nipping out to Columbia Road flower market on Sunday mornings, to pick up some blooms and have some coffee, just because I can. No more jumping on the Tube to get everywhere. On my walk to the station there’ll be no more seeing the Olympic stadium when I turn my head left, and the City skyline when I turn my head right. Coming into the centre is going to involve an Overground Train – even if it’s only 20 minutes. It’s a shift, it’s a change, it’s us growing up.
It’s not going to be the same, London. I’m not leaving you, but I am leaving the parts of you that I love the most. I want things that you can’t give me. My borough has the highest levels of child poverty in the country – and it also contains Canary Wharf. That breaks my heart. I can’t bring a family up there – it’s not what I want.
I’ve never figured you out, and to claim that I have would dismiss everything that makes you what you are. I’m more of a person for having lived and loved and battled with you than I ever could have been anywhere else. There’s something about you that pushes the boundaries, that switches me on, that makes me feel alive. That makes me run the whole gamut of emotions, every day. That’s taught me about the depth and the breadth of life, because it’s all contained here, in one city, in you.
But seriously. £20 a round?