I’m a Northerner born and bred, and yet last September I was able to say that I’d lived in London for as long as I lived up North. 18 years, to be exact. I used to hear the clichés from friends and family a lot. “I like London, but I couldn’t live there”, or “I’ve been to London. Never liked it. Everyone’s so rude, nobody talks to you.”
Well, having lived here for so long (I think now I can actually call myself a Londoner) I can tell you that the second thing is nonsense. Most people visiting London only actually go into the centre of town, shops and shows. You’re usually only going to meet other tourists there; so really, you’re not meeting that many Londoners. They’re all at work, you see. The other thing worth mentioning is that Londoners will absolutely talk to you. IF YOU ACTUALLY BOTHER TO TALK TO THEM. And despite popular belief they won’t edge away, or look at you like you’re mad etc etc. They’ll smile and pass the time of day just as they would anywhere else. Our next-door neighbours gave us presents when we got married and when Arthur was born. The lady a few doors down brought us a load of toys hers have grown out of. Since having Arthur I’m on nodding acquaintance with many more neighbours and have made friends in the flats opposite. It’s a community like any other.
If there is more of a reticence in a big city you can’t really blame us. We live a different way, with different worries and concerns. Over the past few years we’ve watched as our beloved cities have been targeted by extremists and our people killed on the same streets we walk every day. It’s difficult to keep being friendly to everyone you meet under that strain. After the London Bridge attack I really struggled to go back into the centre of town. Having a baby with me was probably the main reason. I have to wave my husband off to Soho every day for work, and if he can do it, so can I. This is my city, and it always will be; my Borough Market, my Strand, my Camden Town, my South Bank, my Angel. These are the streets where I became an adult, staggering out of pubs and clubs with my friends at university, catching the Number 12 night bus (highly recommended if you like watching a drunken bust-up), living at seven different addresses in Southwark, Islington, Hornsey and back to Southwark again. This is where I fell in love with my husband and married him, this is our son’s first home. I’ve conducted choirs and orchestras here, taken kids on endless trips, written and chatted in cafes all over the city. Private members bars, pubs, museums, galleries, opera houses, concert halls, parks, trains, tubes and buses.
I love this place. The view from Waterloo Bridge will always make me catch my breath in wonder, and my husband and I still argue about which side is best as we try to look at the view and the road at the same time while we drive across the river to visit our families. Ah, the river, Old Father Thames (or Mama Thames if you believe Ben Aaranovitch’s excellent Rivers of London series). It divides us into two halves, causing jocular debates about which is best, North or South. I’ve lived South more than North, but I’ve got a secret space in my heart for the trendier North, especially Camden where I had my first proper teaching job.
Despite all of this our house is on the market. It’s time to move on.
I always knew that if we finally did manage to have a child I’d want him to have a similar childhood to mine. It’s a personal thing; there are plenty of awesome kids I know being raised in this amazing city, and we could stay and do the same. It would be easier in many ways; moving is awful, and our home is lovely. It’s just that after my pregnancy when I went back to the North something shifted. There’s a longing for open sky, for walking boots and woods, and hills to explore in the fresh air. I never expected to feel that way. I thought I’d want to live here forever, but my pregnancy and becoming a mother has changed me. I can’t deny that. I’ve been rearranged somehow.
We visited friends outside of London last weekend. It was lovely, and although we didn’t do much exploring while we were there we did have time to exhale. Driving back into town through Wimbledon as the streets got narrower and the buildings taller, I felt the sky get smaller and suddenly I knew. I’m ready.
But you’ll always be my first love, London.