Dear London

January 2012

Dear London

 

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?

 

K x

Categories: Life Experience, Travel, Your Favourite Posts
31 interesting thoughts on this

29 Comments

  1. Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Oh Anna, Anna, Anna. I don't know quite what to say in a comment in response to this post but I so want to. Beautiful, wonderful writing & thoughts. Moving from Zone 2 to Zone 4 is change, but good change. And the space of a house to make a home rather than a flat is amazing. I love our new house & hope yours happens swiftly & easily.

  2. Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Amazing, Anna. Perfectly wonderful ode to an imperfectly wonderful city.

    K x

  3. Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Beautiful, Anna.

    x

  4. Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    This is really lovely Anna. Actually makes me want to go to London, and I never have wanted to before

  5. Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I do know what you mean, I really do. I just moved 400 miles to Glasgow from London (I like to think of it as very north London, while I get used to things). I know it's a bit lame when people do this, but I wrote a very very similar post a few months ago – here it is

    http://cakesandbunting.blogspot.com/2011/10/moving.html

    and I even mentioned the same lurching sense of excitement when crossing the river. The sign that London still excites you. Best of luck in your new hood. The great thing about London is that there are really no bad places, if you know where to look. And Epping Forest is amazing xx

  6. Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I'm leaving London this weekend after an on-off relationship we initiated in 2006. I'm sad to be leaving, but I'm a true believer that, for me, it's best that I move on before I grow tired (don't worry – I don't roll that philosophy over into my marriage!!). As a result, I will ALWAYS love London. We've shared so many years together, and it shaped me in a way that no-one else or nowhere else could. I completely get where you're coming from…and yes, £20 rounds will NEVER feel right!

  7. Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Claire, I love your post! Especially this line: "I finally know this city, with its coloured lines under your feet, its hidden rivers and stinkpipes. I know its arteries and veins".

    Thanks so much for your lovely comments, all. I'm never sure how well "writing" posts are supposed to go down, posts that are written for a feeling, rather than an "issue". And the Twitter love has made my head expand. London's no for everyone but it's so, so powerful, and it's a slow power that creeps up on you, a weekend, a month, a year isn't enough to understand it.

  8. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I LOVE this post! I too moved to London in 2004 all on my lonesome, met and fell in love with a Londoner and moved to the leafy "burbs" and a SW postcode! But some of my best memories are of living near Finsbury Park with not a penny to my name but spending all my time explore the city.

  9. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Aw thanks Anna! I loved it when I discovered the stinkpipes – I know that sounds weird. But, (as I'm sure you know) they are those things that look like antique lampposts, albeit with no lights on top. When I realised that they indicated the presence of an underground river, I felt like I'd been let in on some secret part of the city. Everyone walked past them without noticing, but there was a whole history in their presence.

  10. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Claire, no I didn't know that! Where can I look for them? What a wonderful secret!

  11. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Anna – I'll DM you some links rather than 'pollute' your blog comments with links to victorian stink pipes! Thanks for a wonderful post xx

  12. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Anna, http://stinkpipes.blogspot.com/

    I first found out about them from a Hidden London book of walks we used to do as a family on occassional Sundays, exploring secret churches and tiny alleyways, and stinkpipes, before tea.

    Claire, I loved your post! God, both of you just make me want to walk all over London today

    K x

  13. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I loved this. Beautifully written, and so heartfelt.

    My parents never took me to London, they were not interested in visiting the big smoke, when we could holiday in Pembrokeshire. They don't like crowds of people, so I first visited the city in my 20s, and thought it was so hectic and glamourous, and have been every year since.

    I used to have the occasional meeting and training course in London, but in 2006, one of my best friends moved to the city. It took her a few years for the city to get under her skin. A country girl, who had no intentions to ever live in London, but it was a case of redundancy or London, and she chose the latter. Her first flat was just off Slone Square (her boss owned the flat which she was able to rent with another girl at a ridiculously below market rent), for the first year, then Shoreditch, and now Clapham. Oddly enough, her first flat on Pimlico Road was her least favourite place, and mine. Clapham is much more fun.

    Well done you for doing London. I think it's the best move my friend made too, and she'd never have met her current beau in Shropshire. I'll suggest a stinkpipe walk, for the next visit.

    xx

  14. Emily
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Anna this is absolutely beautiful. I know exactly what you mean by never really getting to know London – it is quoted too often but I do think Dr J was on to something! Though I still need to convince Mr B of this.

    I still go from hating London (jubilee line in rush hour) to feeling proud that I can follow my nose to find most places in the centre after 6 years of cycling, walking and running, even with my ropey sense of direction.

    I moved from SW6 to fairly grim SE for stairs and a downstairs loo and love it – everyone who lives in Fulham actually hates London and leaves whenever they can. My new area feels like a proper community, with proper local shops and cafes. And I'm 10 mins from Dulwich Park and the gallery, which is never stuffed full of tourists (though the risk of being run over by a 4X4 pushchair is high).

    So I'm having my not hen dinner in a local cafe, with drinks at home first, rather than at any of the glam restaurants that were suggested – I'm having a honey wedding, so why not a homey not hen do?!

    xxx

  15. Jessie
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Anna, this is so beautiful and so relevant to me. We're still 20 something renters of a damp one bedder with marriage and life and all that being more than 20 something brings with it looming on the horizon. And it scares me because we cannot logistically or financially stay in London even though London is my career, my friends, my life. But I am so very glad that we'll be able to look back on our time here with so much fondness and so many anecdotes of a flat with no heating, late nights, early mornings, markets round every corner, vibrancy and decay. Given how far London spreads both over and underground is it any wonder it gets so far under one's skin?

  16. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    This is so true! We are so deeply in love with this city… for me coming from New York it took some time to adjust but now I love London in a way I never really loved NY, if I'm honest. I've mostly always been south of the river, brixton, streatham, but fieldwork took me all over the city, from youth clubs in Limehouse to libraries in Willesden. Every time I even consider leaving London my heart sinks (even when I'm on the insanely crowded 59 on the way to work).

    And we too are trying to buy a more 'grown-up' place, although hopefully sticking around our S London sort-of-'burbs'

  17. Jessie
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    P.S. All this talk of stink pipes – do not underestimate how excited this has got us in our little book publishing office…now to convince the boss!!

  18. Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    K – you have a different time line to me but you've pinned down the reasons why London will always have my heart.

    Also, want a new neighbour? HP in on our list – eeeeek!

    SJM x

  19. Liz
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    My dad was a trader on the Stock Exchange and I remember being about 4 and my mum taking me to visit him there, meeting him in his stripy red & white blazer outside of the Stock Exchange – one of my earliest memories!It definitely made an impression and the reason that I refused to choose a London university was that I knew I would end up living here anyway!

    I moved to London about 7 years ago, firstly Clapham North, then Tooting Bec before we decided that we needed a little bit more space and departed London for Brentwood (Anna we seem to following a fairly similar route!)- one of the things that made that big, grown up move not so scary is that I can see the Gherkin, and Tower 42 and Canary Wharf from my spare bedroom window – and if I can see it then I reasoned that I haven't gone that far!

    And, at this very moment I am sat at my desk off Hanover Square bang in the middle of it all, the best of both worlds!

  20. Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I love

    That is all!

  21. Zan
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Great post – I moved down to London for my first proper job in 2002. Having grown up partly there meant it wasn't quite so intimidating, but I definitely recognize a lot of the feelings and conflicts. And totally there with the 'you'll never know all of London' – partly because there's SO MUCH to know and partly because it's always changing.

    Unfortunately, another place had already stolen my heart (Manchester) so I think I always knew it'd never be a permanent home for me. But it'll always be special in it's own way.

    Incidently – could this be the start of a new series of posts…a sort of 'The Place that Made Me'??

  22. Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Anna I concur with everyone else, this is a really beautiful piece. Some of your best writing yet. I don't know how you find the time!

    I'm the opposite; live in the countryside, like going to London for weekends and I understand the buzz of London but miss the countryside when I'm there. You make living in London sound like a wonderful artform that I'll just never be able to understand fully.

    Good luck with the change of borough. Like Mrs Dunn says, I think you'll really appreciate the extra space and satisfaction a house gives. She puts it better than me – the space of a house to make a home – its so true!

    xXx

  23. Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Aw, lovely writing Mrs K. It almost made me burst into tears. I was born in London and have only ever not lived there for 4 years of my life so far. I LOVE IT. LOVE IT, LOVE IT. Having lived in other places, I appreciate it more and I love it even more than I did. But also find the poverty hard to deal with, like you referred to Anna, it makes me very sad indeed… although I know it's like that in so many places and certainly not exclusive to London. Oh gosh and don't even get me started on the riots! I was absolutely gutted last August when all of that was going on- I couldn't believe my city was being ripped apart, and I was also traumatised thinking about the young people within it so very angry, and many of them very let down by the system/society/government. Gutted all round.

    So much more to say but the thing that makes London different for me compared to other cities is: ANYTHING GOES. All the time. You can be whoever you want to be. It's not like that everywhere.

    Really hard for hubby and I at the moment as we decide whether to stay or go… :-(

  24. Posted January 26, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I just felt my heart burst x

  25. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    In 2011 I visited London for the first time. I was told in an instant you will either love it or hate. I loved it and it reminded me of my home city New York. This letter to your city moved me to tears. Love it and I'm sure I'll read it again. Good luck!

  26. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic piece Anna. Love London and remember how it felt like a kick in the chest when the heart was being ripped out of it last August.

    It's crossing Waterloo Bridge on a sunny day, it's the smells and bustle of Borough Market, it's watching a play at the Globe on a summer's night as the sun sinks and the lights of St Pauls wink across the river. Love it.

    Ps can we do a walk in search of standpipes?!

  27. Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I meant stink pipes, obviously.

  28. Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Oh Anna, Anna, Anna, this piece is pure heaven for me. I'm moving to London next week (yes really) to start a new job -I've always, alwas wanted to live in London but had practically given up on my dream after almost building my entire life in Yorkshire. When the life I thought I'd built crumbled I knew I was going to follow that dream. And your post has made me sure I'm making the right decision! For that, a huge thankyou.

    Anita x

  29. amy f
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    We are looking to leave zone 2 after nearly eight years too. Our options are either Epping or Amersham. It's freaking me out big time but the thought of a garage and a garden keeps me going. Eeek!

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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