Earlier this month, I went to London for the first time in almost two years. My last trip was in February 2020, just before lockdown, when ‘the Chinese virus’ was still a news story with no implications for my own life.
I stayed with friends, a couple who have finally bought their own place, a one-bedroom ex-council flat off Caledonian Road. The average price for a 1BR in London these days is £350K. I know because I spend a lot of time on Rightmove, fantasising about a return to the metropolis.
Caledonian Rd is not the sort of place you fantasise about living, but the yoga studios and vegan cafes of Islington are a walk away, and the local park is Hampstead Heath. In fact, it’s not so different to where I live in Glasgow: a rough area with lots of social housing but also close to an inner-city boho zone and a big park.
I first came to London in 1990, my first return to the UK, post-childhood emigration, clutching my new UK passport, issued through the High Commission in Canberra. I’d booked a two-night stay, via international reply coupons, at the YHA in Earls Court. Why did I choose Earls Court? I have no idea. There were several YHAs across London, and the notion that Australians belonged in Earls Court was exactly the sort of notion I would react against. I was a returning British citizen, although my accent announced otherwise. Back then, young folk, there was no internet, and independent backpacker hostels that didn’t require membership and weren’t run like boarding schools were news to me.
Head spinning from jet lag and sleep deprivation, I tumbled off the Tube from Heathrow. It was about ten am when I staggered up to the hostel reception. A dour, skinny man told me that I couldn’t get into the dorm until the evening. They were the rules: ‘You’re in England now.’
What was I meant to understand by this? I still don’t know.
I walked across Hyde Park to stay awake and to start the process of being in London. It was January and I’d never experienced such leaden, heart-freezing greyness. The sky was low and colourless, and I didn’t have the right clothes to keep out the penetrating chill, even though I’d gone snow-camping in Australia. At last, I was in London, but it didn’t seem to want me.
I returned to London a few years later, to spend New Year with a friend I’d met in Japan, where we were both teaching English. I was spending my summer break (December–January) in Paris doing a French course at the Alliance Française. By comparison to Paris, London was friendly and familiar. In the wintry depression of the early 1990s, my friend had found a job in legal publishing and a share flat above a fried chicken shop in Catford. The gas ran off a coin meter and my friend went to the post office to queue for bags of change. It was something out of a mid-century novel.
It was one of the best New Year’s Eves of my life, and it lasted a week. I was sorry to go back to Paris.
In 1999 I arrived in London from Tokyo with my life in two backpacks. I stayed for six years, five of them in a converted cupboard in Bloomsbury. With no prospect, as a single woman on a publishing salary, of paying half my income on a mortgage rather than on rent, I left in 2005, not long after the summer terrorist attacks, one of them around the corner from where I lived.
In my absence, London became even more expensive. A friend who had also left London pointed out that single occupancy of a converted cupboard in Zone 1 would now be an enviable luxury, and that publishing professionals are these days stacked three-high in bunk beds in Zone 6 HMOs. Theoretically, I could move back to London, but at the cost of civilised solo-dwelling. In middle-age, this is too high a price. I’ve always paid a premium to live alone.
In Francesca Wade’s wonderful book, Square Haunting, on women intellectuals and writers living in interwar Bloomsbury, I read that the services of a maid were not incompatible with the Bohemian life. Mentally, I added my own chapter: in the early 2000s, I was possibly the last lady writer in Bloomsbury without a private income or rich partner.
Why London? When asked by a friend, I found myself struggling to express the obvious. London is the central office, the ground zero, the headquarters of the British Anglophone civilisation to which I belong. So many streets, parks, neighbourhoods and Tube stations are familiar to me through literature, history and the Monopoly board. London is a vast geographical compendium of stories, to which I added, very modestly, my own.
Glasgow and Edinburgh, my current cities, are Scottish cities. London is a world city. Within it are uncountable distinct worlds, some interlinked, others entirely separate. Its variety is truly infinite.
In those six years in London, I finally had the sense of being at the centre of everything after growing up in a far-flung branch office of a branch office. The local library is the British Library. The local museum is the British Museum. The local gallery is the National Gallery. If an international organisation or brand has one office or shop in the UK, you’ll find it in London. Everything else is an outpost. This is exactly the kind of London-centric thinking that everyone else in the UK abhors. Sorry.
London is the only place I’ve ever felt at home, amid all the other rootless cosmopolitans. I thought London was my place. But, yeah, financial reality, London. Possibly the great unrequited love affair of my life.