If You Can Make It There…

Leaving London.

From the first day I arrived in London I began to wryly anticipate my departure. The people I kept company with when I arrived were slightly older, had lived there for years and kept referring to how gentrified and dead the city was. They were artists and left-wing academics, smarter and more sophisticated than me, so even as I unpacked my three suitcases and crate of books, settling into what would become one of a dozen sublets, I was ingratiating myself into the culture by rolling my eyes about neighbourhoods which one could no longer live in. I was fitting in with them by tsk-tsking about rowdy students disrupting old guys trying to watch football in the pub, as though I had not myself only just arrived to the area. I was sharing cigarettes outside galleries beneath railway arches, shaking my head meaningfully at discussion of the incoming artisan bakeries and bottle shops. I will always remember my shame when a cool woman who was about to move from London to Lisbon said, when introduced to me as a new arrival: ‘Wait – you’re moving to London?’ as though it was the wildest proposition she could imagine, to choose to move to London in 2015.

I arrived a few days after the Conservative government won back their majority, further cementing my position as a foolish rat leaping onto the sinking ship. I had only ever been to London on a handful of brief visits before I decided to move. I was following a man, but I had also sickened myself so thoroughly of life in Ireland, poisoned so many wells there, that it began to feel like I had no choice but to get out, and quick. In the space of eight or so weeks in Dublin I had cheated on my live-in boyfriend, made a forceful and ultimately successful go of getting fired from my job in medical admin (which, though easy and well-paid, had lately, out of nowhere, begun to make me feel that I would commit physical harm against myself or others) and fallen in love with someone new who appeared to not really live anywhere but spent some time in London, which seemed reason enough to give it a go.

London was objectively horrid for my first few years, filled first with the sordid heartbreak of not only losing the man I had loved but realising I had never had him to begin with. I was abjectly broke, scattering myself all over the city through various temp agencies miles away from one another – but never willing to forego a night out for food, subsisting on rice and soy sauce and as many cups of the free office machine hot chocolate as I could keep down. Then came the months of miserable but numerous dates with earringed willowy Goldsmiths students, so diffident and mawkish in the pub but oddly confident when asking to spit on you in bed.

And yet even those first months – from which I can almost smell the panic and derangement when I look at photographs – were still worth it. There is my oddly Amish-looking home-haircut languishing in the filthy smoking area of the Brockley Barge, deathly hungover with a friend having ordered the Wetherspoons two-meals-for-seven-pounds-deal. We are looming over a sausage roll, beans and chips, and a plate of ‘Singapore noodles’. Next, there are the troubling Photobooth pictures of me alone in the Guardian office in King’s Cross at 9pm, on the second shift of my several temp jobs there. The day I started I was on my hands and knees fiddling with some cables and a journalist from the business desk came over and said, merrily, ‘While you’re down there you can shine my shoes!’ I temped in a friend’s office in Holborn for a month, admiring his shameless ability to go for a fag break every 15 minutes and then hide in the toilet for an hour. After work we got the train back to Peckham and sat outside in any weather conditions, fingers rapidly yellowing from Golden Virginia, and talked about the books we might write one day if we ever stopped going to the pub six nights a week. I went to Passionate Necking, the sadly defunct queer night in New Cross, and got in trouble for kissing a girl and her ex-girlfriend in quick succession. At night when I couldn’t afford to go out I took co-codamol and walked blissfully around Nunhead listening to the Bob Dylan song Isis and singing along loudly enough to startle passersby: ‘She said you look different / I said, well, I GUESS!

Mostly, what I loved was the impossibility of exhausting London. My hometown and Dublin were both compact enough that it felt as though I’d stomped around any potentially appealing parts many times over, whereas I knew London would never be comple­ted, that I would never even come close to figuring it all out and how it fit together. When I ran out of money I would just walk from whatever place I happened to be staying at the time as far as I could in different directions (Brockley to Chalk Farm was a particular personal favourite). I liked to go through the market in Borough and smell all the esoteric cheeses I would never be able to afford, and I loved, most of all, to cross any bridge. Crossing a bridge, I let myself inflate with self-congratulation for being here, finally getting my fill of the cinema that cities promise and often fail to deliver.

During the lockdowns I established a route so set that I could never stomach doing it again after the world reopened, which was from Camberwell through Burgess Park into Peckham, then back around through Goose Green and up Dog Kennel Hill (browsing in the big Sainsbury’s optional). I always liked that London, for all its shiny attractions, seemed shrouded in an unapologetic sullenness. There was some kind of refusal inherent in it that felt like a challenge, the same as how everyone who lives there is energised by moaning about how awful it is to live there (except native Londoners who will of course sneer violently if any criticism at all is made).

As the reality of the new pandemic life in London set in, I nested as I never had before – I had made enough money from a book deal to rent a flat by myself for the first time. A part of my mind accepted, at some point, that lockdowns would never end and, therefore, I should invest in furniture and homeware and a tele­vision and the trappings I had never owned. For two years, that was life. I struggled, and then I adapted and fell in love, and felt more committed than ever to London. I felt this both emotionally and materially. I was weighed down by an actual lease, a cat, a partner and belongings. But also: all that time I had spent in it during lockdowns, when I had walked it backwards and forwards, and had to learn its geography and uses in a completely new way, made London feel more mine than ever.

Then the world reignited slowly and I began to spend time in New York again. New York is, for me, sort of like the dream that’s too farcically desirable to even acknowledge. It’s like saying you want to be a princess when you grow up, or expecting to actually date that maddeningly beautiful stranger you saw riding a bike in Copenhagen once and never forgot. I had let myself spend a few weeks there and eventually a few months, but it felt safe because I had a partner and a life in London. I wasn’t going to actually try to be there in a serious way – that would be ridiculous, an absurd extravagance. Eventually, though, the insanity of such a thought began to come into question. Two practical matters intervened: my boyfriend and I had a loving but slow and painful breakup, and my rent in London got hiked so high that I realised I would actually be paying less to live alone in New York.

I still don’t feel there was ever a day that I decided concretely to leave, although as I write this I am in New York and have given up my flat and almost all my earthly belongings in London. I just began to stay longer and longer, returning more and more frequently until I felt fully seduced, fully unfaithful to London. I’ll tell you what it was – it was the absence of the very sullenness which once endeared me to London. I found that I not only enjoyed, but was bettered by, the gormless good cheer. People in bars talk to you and not only if they want to have sex. They just talk to you because they are interested in others. As a person who is both vain and irrepressibly curious about strangers this was a revelation. Things open later. I lived in Fort Greene for three months and could work in bed until ten or 11PM and then amble to the good dive, Alibi on Dekalb Avenue, and make bets with the barman on the pool being played in the corner.

The bridges, it transpired, were even more delectable than London’s, and I passed over the Manhattan Bridge more days than not, ending in Chinatown, eating a bowl of dumplings and turning right back around again. Even when I couldn’t afford the chintzy martinis and oysters I could still walk into the library on 42nd Street and feel like crying with happiness. I grew bolder, messaging writers I admired and asking to hang out just because I felt I could. I tried out different sorts of scenes, dated all over the city, stealing spots shamelessly from one to bring the next to; Decibel, the Japanese speakeasy in the East Village; Romans, the catastrophically overpriced but perfect Italian in Clinton Hill; The Library, on Avenue A, where the bartender burst into tears after I put The Killing Moon on the jukebox. I kept returning to London after my stints, but I began to cry with real grief every time I had to do so.

I began to question whether I was cordoning off the idea of New York as above my station for any truly good reason at all. To say ‘I want to be a novelist’ once seemed the most vain, self-regarding and impossible ambition possible to me, and yet that had taken place. Plenty of stupid, essentially useless people I knew lived in New York, so why not me?

It wasn’t an easy decision, or a decision at all, as I said. It was more like the force of my desire kept making me take little actions in that direction until I finally had to admit all the little actions had accrued and I no longer lived in London. Wanting New York now might be me being greedy, but being greedy for the next new thing is what got me to London for nine years, the truest home of my adulthood, where I’ll never really, fully, finally leave.

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