Leaving London

2023-01-13

london city journal germany berlin

I haven’t felt sentimental about leaving London, I haven’t felt like I need to say goodbye. We made a list of things to do in the city to give it a big send off, but we haven’t been motivated to follow through with them. I love this city. I used to argue in favour of it all the time. Now I’m ready to leave it and barely look over my shoulder. I tried very hard to get here and I shaped my life around keeping hold of my perch here, so you could say I feel passionately about the place. When I first moved here I wasn’t alone, but I left the quiet county I grew up in for the opposite end of the country.

We arrived in Brixton, in our own place. In fact in a place very much much not our own. In fact in an apartment owned by somebody else and rented to us. It was an apartment bought in the nineties; it was a speculative property investment made by a rapidly socially mobile young professional in an Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood being recolonised by many such speculators. It was bought by a kind of boom time mobility that no longer exists in a kind of neighbourhood that, though it hangs on, is rapidly being boxed in. At the time, none of this occupied us. We had an address in London. It was our own place.

We were young professionals in a global city, and adopted a lifestyle that pretended as much. Our kitchen was newly fitted and we filled it with groceries delivered by an Ocado van that made multiple stops on our street of tidy pastel terraced houses. We were equidistant from two centres: Brixton and Herne Hill. Brixton was for weekdays. I commuted from the end of the Victoria line to my office in Oxford Circus. I could sit at my desk and watch the shopping crowds traipsing up and down Regents Street, queues outside the Apple Store for new products. Herne Hill was for weekends. I swam in the 1930s lido in Brockwell Park. I went to the market and looked at expensive cheese.

Messengers of god tried to reach me every weekday. Oxford Circus tube station has four primary entrances symmetrically placed around the eponymous junction. The four staircases dig into the earth in front of Niketown, H&M, The Microsoft Store, and Tezenis. At the end of the work day, we waited in enormous crowds at the tops of the staircases. The station was closed due to overcrowding for some amount of time at rush hour almost every weekday. The messengers gathered and addressed the audience. They spoke about the hellfire and damnation that waited below and the salvation that waited for those who let Him into their hearts. Some carried signs and held them over their heads: The end is coming. Many wore Britney mics and wheeled around an amplifier. Some sang and banged a tambourine. Eventually, the gates at the bottom of the stairs opened and we all went down into the ceramic, intestinal belly of the earth. At the other end, Brixton tube station is theatrical. You creep up the diagonal slice of its three long escalators. At the top, the evening sun appears in an opening and silhouettes the figures crossing over into the light. Standing at the top of the stairs is a figure holding two tablets out to passersby. When you reach them yourself, they are two copies of the Evening Standard offered by a prophet in a red windbreaker. Where these people go when they are not at every tube station for the short window of rush hour, I do not know. Perhaps the people handing out the City AM finish their morning shift, change jackets over lunch, and get back to it for the evening shift. In the middle of the pavement a man running a hot dog stand fries onions so that the scent is inhaled by the tube station and infuses the hungry commuters with mutinous ideas about abandoning their meal plans. Turning left, God is back and he has a steel drum accompaniment. A young Arab man sings the Quran into another PA system. A little further up a middle-aged white man who looks like he could be a cab driver speaks breathlessly about Sodom and Gomorra. He too is amplified. Finally, in front of the KFC on Coldharbour Lane, a circle of vegans have staged an action that involves masks and television screens rolling footage of slaughterhouses.

Our choice of neighbourhood was opportunistic, perhaps random. The young professional who bought the apartment now located in prime location was in fact my girlfriend’s mother, who would be a less punitive and arbitrary landlord than many I would deal with later. (Social mobility is of course littered with these not-so-little circumstances and things that just happen to be convenient.) Nevertheless, your neighbourhood in London is a redoubt in a soft culture war posed postcode by postcode. Thus, we lived in Brixton and not Clapham. Clapham was where many of my fellow university alumni landed. It was the place of the graduate lawyers, consultants, those who worked “in marketing”. It was a few lines of cocaine once a month, embroidered gilets, Fiat 500s, rescued greyhounds. This triangulation of cultural signifiers allowed for snobbery directed upward and across, the classless ever-so-slightly upper middle class. Brixton then by contrast was a perfect balance, grounded but exciting. Gentrified enough to have a brunch place, yet “real” enough to have a Caribbean wholesaler. The microclimate I have described is only my own. This desperate self-differentiation by way of neighbourhood is endemic to a certain type of person at a certain age all over the city.

The city is where many famous people exist in actual physical space. You will come across one of them every couple of months. Each encounter is the same in essence. You will be walking down the pavement in some congested part of town, dodging other people who are dodging you. As you subconsciously scan the bodies coming toward you to predict their trajectories and adjust your own, a face insists itself. A moment of grinding while you search the records for your kinship to this person: family, friend, colleague? You know this face not in passing, but in detail, how it moves, the expressions it makes. You know the voice that comes out of it. Revelation. It is, of course, that guy from that thing. No further action is required other than to tell somebody. For some reason it is very important that you tell somebody. I saw Ian McKellan on the tube in a wide-brimmed hat, Bill Nighy jauntily walking through Soho in the mid-afternoon, Lin Manuel Miranda discussing Mary Poppins in the basement of a Notting Hill bookshop. You can’t do anything with any of this, there’s no interaction to be had because this person does not know you. So you walk on.

There are also beautiful people from time to time. It is possible to feel harassed, put out, by beautiful people. You will see a person who looks unreal; their appearance implies they don’t go through the ritual humiliations of daily life the mortals do. They look as if they earn a living by looking how they look, or by being seen doing something whilst looking how they look. You might be sat across from such a person on the tube, trying to read your book. Worse, you might be trying to bully your own body into an acceptable shape when a living sculpture walks across the gym. These things ruin your day. They break open the ceiling on how you think a person can really look, and your contentment gets sucked out into the vacuum. You will encounter these people in the city; these people do not stay long elsewhere. Perhaps, thank goodness, they are not born with it and they have merely mastered some toolset only available in the city. If they lived outside the city they would look remarkable yes, but not unreal.

Most of the time, you don’t live in London, you live in your neighbourhood, in your house, in your bed. Occasionally though, something very good or very bad happens and you do live in London. Somebody drove a car over Westminster Bridge and murdered some tourists. Somebody stabbed people on London Bridge and in Borough Market until they were gunned down by armed police. Extinction Rebellion set up an occupation in Oxford Circus and the swirl of shopping and diesel fumes outside my office window became a pedestrianised paradise with music, poetry and for some reason, a boat in the the middle of the junction. It snowed so hard the city stopped and hushed. The Prime Minister announced a lockdown and asked everybody to stay inside their houses for the foreseeable future.

I stayed in London through the lockdowns. Others left and I pictured them cavorting around their big childhood homes in the home counties, eating an ice cream in a paddling pool as they sweated out the heatwaves. I had no desire to be anywhere else; I only desired that everywhere could be better. I rode my bike through Westminster and St. Pauls one night and didn’t see another soul. First I lived alone in a first floor apartment in Brixton, then I moved over the road into a house that was probably build to house a family and their staff. It housed 5 young adults.

That time is a dark box I’m not willing to open all the way up. We moved to Dulwich, into a two bedroom house with a garden. Then London felt like the waiting room for a suburban gravesite. I ran every inch of the postcode. With the people gone into their burrows, it was easy to feel that all movement had left the place. I followed advice and tried to connect with the currents of the world underneath, that pre-dated the bus routes and high rises. I walked the route of the lost river Effra. I walked up a steep hill to an oak where Queen Elizabeth I once sat. It worked for a while but eventually I sank. Writing about depression is only interesting if you dress it up with lies. The world became unbearably flat. I felt either nothing or an acute panic that I might have to wake up again to the same thing. My city became a series of bridges high enough, or station platforms where freight trains roll through at full speed and nobody would have to see. I scared myself and for the second time, threw all my life up in the air so it would land in a different configuration. Two months later I was living north of the Thames, medicated, therapised and content in my own company for a time.

I started to run along the Regent’s Canal, into Regent’s Park and Hyde Park. You can see birds that I think must be lost. The primary green parakeets of London are well known by now but there’s still something about seeing a heron sunbathing in Zone 1. I cycled my bike everywhere and it glued the whole city together. I learned how to weave and dodge and endure the hazards. Soon I wasn’t alone any more, and we rode our bikes up to the swimming ponds. We joined that cadre of regular swimmers for a while. Every Saturday morning we plunged into a duck pond and did laps with the hardened old ladies. Afterwards we rolled down to a bakery and had coffee and pastries. We began to covet our idyllic routine. In the end it’s a test of your mettle. Autumn comes and the temperatures plummet. Only the most dedicated make it to Christmas; we were not the most dedicated.

One evening I sat in a negroni bar in Soho, waiting for my date (how you’ve become, boy from the house in the fields!) and there was a middle-aged man crammed in the seat next to me. He was drinking alone, ordering red wine a bottle at a time. He was rich, plummy, and drunk such that he tried to drag others in the busy bar around him into conversation. He was ugly, body and soul. Even the small jagged fragments of conversation he wedged between the diners around him were foul-minded. Eventually he was rebuffed by everybody around him and he had to turn his goaty insinuations inward. He pulled out his phone and rang somebody on FaceTime. A young West African woman picked up. He began flirting with her openly and pathetically. He told her he would come to Lagos and buy her nice things. He told her she was beautiful and she needed a strong man, he asked her if she wanted strong children. He pulled the phone closer to his lips but did not lower his voice. He told her he wanted her to himself in a luxurious hotel room. He wanted to feel her body all over his. He told her he was very rich. He told her he didn’t have anybody. He left the bar and left behind an almost full bottle of wine and reading glasses.

Ostentatious wealth is here. Bentleys and Lamborghinis cruise up and down the streets of Kensington to white Palladian terraces getting their sub-basements blown out. Lords tumble out of the bars in the Palace of Westminster and into black cabs to be taken to their drab and expensive boltholes in Pimlico or maybe to somewhere roomier in the Chilterns. Above every tube station in the middle of town is a “landmark” glass tower of empty apartments. In Canary Wharf and the City, wealth froths in receptacles glass and steel. In West London it sits plump in townhouses. Elsewhere, wealth is just a locked gate. The structures force the rest of us to live their lives around them, to be aware of them and apart from them. Occasionally, we are confronted with the fleshy wealthy themselves, though. They have soft hands and smell good. They slur their words and beg for love over the phone.

A walk just after dawn in spring is still the best time to discover new things about London. In the early morning the city is calm enough to look at in its specifics. To try to take impressions at any other time is to scrutinise the side of a train as it rushes by. You are disoriented, likely to topple over and get flattened. In the meantime, you’re only able to discern shallow attributes of what you see: blue, red, white, light, dark, rich, poor, busy, quiet, old, new. First thing in the morning, you can watch the city slowly switch from off to on. Market stalls arrive, are unloaded from the backs of vans, put up, and start to emanate the smell of something cooking. I don’t think I come back here. I was here at just the right time.