Last week, I caught up with an old friend who was in London for a conference. We ate pizza, drank wine, reminisced about our old art teacher who’d spent most lessons hiding in the supplies cupboard. We said our goodbyes at half past midnight, at which point she repaired to her hotel room and I was charged £4.20 for the privilege of missing the last tube. So far, so average Thursday.
The remarkable thing about the night was that this was her first time in London. Up until now, she’d never visited – not to see family, not to see friends, not to see the dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and certainly not to see the passive aggressive tutting on the left-hand side of the escalators. Being a naturalised Londoner myself, this made for a strange lurch in perspective.
“I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore,” she commented, slightly shellshocked, the second she disembarked in Earls Court.
By Kansas, of course, she meant Darlington – a land where the shop assistants are friendly, the artisanal bakery trade is booming and girls teeter round in hyperborean conditions wearing little more than fake tan. These days, I return three or four times a year, hankering for the lack of pretension. Displace your average Dalstoner in Darlo town centre, and he’d definitely get kicked in the nuts.
That said, I spent my teens clawing to get out, most specifically in the direction of London. “It isn’t for everyone, admittedly,” I wrote during that interlude, “but for me it’s everything that’s right. The commuter rush? I love it. The anonymity? I love it. The ethnic mishmash? Fantastic. The slightly grimy feeling murking up the air and leaving a greyish residue on your facial wipes? Well, there are showers for that.”
I’ve barely moved on from the sentiment. Over the five years I’ve lived here, I’ve done London properly. I’ve lived a mile from the epicentre of the 2011 riots, worked a mile from the cast of Made in Chelsea, been jolted awake at the end of the line in Cockfosters and rented rooms in five different flats. At a guess, I’ve probably had a bad scam artist ask me for money outside each of the major tube stops.
And over time, the city has swum into focus; its once hazy contours now solidly inked through with experiences. When I visited as a teenager, I saw the tube map as a nexus of squiggles, with Madame Tussauds on the brown squiggle and Covent Garden on the blue. Stay here for a while, however, and those squiggles become firm synaptic links.
You know where to drink in any postcode. You know that it takes an hour and a half to walk from Victoria to Holloway Road. You know that the hipsters are edging East, that the tennis courts are mostly South, and that the 50 blokes waiting for the tube dressed as penguins (I genuinely saw this) barely merit a blink. To know these streets is to own these streets, and after five years, that sense of ownership brinks on love.
So it was weird to loosen these connections and see London through my friend’s wide eyes. The size, the crowds, the cosmopolitanism, the exorbitant prices: all white noise to a Londoner. But while I can barely muster a yawn, they left her open-mouthed.
See, the flip side of living somewhere like London is that London becomes your default. Nothing surprises you or fazes you or coaxes you, even fleetingly, out of your too-cool-for-school urban shell. The evening was an exercise in what creative writing classes call ‘defamiliarisation’. Over dinner, my friend counted six police sirens. I didn’t hear a single one.
Freelance writer and expat