7. On Being a Reluctant Londoner

There was once a version of me who loved the idea of London life. Sometimes, when I am weaving through the blurry Thursday night drinkers of Northcote Road, or diving onto a Victoria line tube to Brixton seconds before the doors close, I miss her. 

But it was only ever the idea of London that I loved – I don’t think I have ever loved the reality of it. I grew up in a small town an hour away from the capital, and I was always fascinated by it. London was where people went to start careers in exciting-sounding things like publishing and television. London people went to work in heels and had a whole wardrobe filled with coats that coordinated with different outfits. And I wanted to be a London person. London had the power to turn me into someone who I very much was not. Someone who drank gin at rooftop bars and went to indie gigs in Shoreditch. Someone who had house parties and actually enjoyed them. And for a while, I did become that person. I had an internship with Sony Music from 2016-2017, and while I didn’t actually live in London during that year, I may as well have for the amount of time I spent there. The days were long – I had to be up at 6am and I wasn’t getting home until 8pm on a good day. I was out most nights at a gig or some kind of industry event that involved a lot of free alcohol and not a lot of food. I was hopping on tubes at all hours of the day and night, running around London like it was a giant playground and I was a hyper child. I was the city girl I had always imagined being, and I hated every part of it. 

The city doesn’t change you. It might let you step into a louder persona for a while, but it can’t change the fabric of who you are. I know this now. I no longer try and trick myself into liking things I know I really hate, like pop-up bars and the Central line. I do live in London now – only because it became impossible for me to find a job anywhere else – but it hardly feels like I do. I live in Zone 4, clinging onto a London postcode by the skin of my teeth. (If I walked for ten minutes in one direction, I would be in Surrey). I can see the back garden of my brother’s old house from my bedroom window, and I’m only half an hour’s drive away from the town where I grew up. I work in a gated village in west London where the only place to go for lunch is a Tesco superstore. I am hardly living the high-flying, suit-wearing city life that many people imagine. 

It is strange to most of my Zone-1-and-2-dwelling work colleagues that I don’t live closer to central London. “But what is there in Zone 4?” they ask, heads tilted with genuine curiosity. “Nothing!” I reply, gleefully. It is true: there is absolutely nothing where I live. Well, there is a high street with a few restaurants, a Starbucks and a Waitrose (obviously, it’s south west London bordering Surrey). But nothing happens here. Nobody has any reason to come here unless they live here. We are not even on a tube line. (To most central Londoners I know, this essentially means we don’t exist). After a draining day of far too much talking with real-life humans, I feel a huge sense of relief when I step off the train into quiet Zone 4 and trot home past the library. The idea of battling my way home on the underground to a Zone 1 flat – no matter how “convenient” the location is – is one that makes my palms sweat and my heart race.

Living in the capital does come with its advantages. There are more job opportunities, especially for those at a junior level, and the wages are higher. Yes, the rent is expensive, but it’s often cheaper than paying thousands in commuter train fares, and it is possible to find affordable housing if you’re prepared to venture further out of the centre. I live in London solely because that’s where my job is, but I would be lying if I said there is nothing else I like about it. You can join a meetup for just about anything, go to all manner of lectures and exhibitions – there are activities for introverts if you have the time to find them. For someone like me who loves dance and fitness, it’s one of the best places to be. There are three gyms within walking distance of my house, and there are studios nearby offering classes in everything from boxing to pole-dancing. One of the highlights of my week is going to a two-hour ballet rehearsal as part of an amateur company, which isn’t something I’d be able to do if I lived in the countryside. 

But the thing that makes London enjoyable for so many is the same thing that makes it utterly overwhelming. There is stuff to do, all the time. And what, exactly, should you be doing? Is it acceptable to sit at home and read when everything is out there? I don’t feel like it is. I feel the pressure a little less now out in Zone 4 (I used to live closer to central London), but it’s still there. I feel overloaded and overstimulated a lot of the time. There is a force pressing on my body from every angle that makes it difficult to breathe, to think, to just be for a minute. It gets stronger the closer I get towards Zone 1. I only feel fully lift when I get on a cross-country train and drift away, until the grey becomes green and the people start to disappear.

This is another thing. London is so densely populated, but it can be a deeply lonely place. Making friends is hard, and keeping them is even harder. For such a well-connected city, people are surprisingly reticent to venture out of their habitual corners. It is not a place where people regularly “pop round” for tea. (Nobody “pops” anywhere in London. Have you ever tried to “pop” to Oxford Street?) Socialising tends to consist of going out with your friend’s friends and one of their cousins, riding the night tube home with them, having a cracking chat about life and then never seeing them again. It’s an odd thing which seems to only be acceptable in London, much like it’s acceptable to be squished into someone’s armpit on the tube and not even vaguely consider introducing yourself. Sometimes, I take my headphones off during rush hour journeys and I’m overcome by the weirdness of it: people pressed up against each other in a speeding underground box, making neither eye contact nor conversation. The only sound is the screeching of the tracks and other people’s music. It is strange how other humans be so physically close to you yet at the same time, so completely inaccessible. It is the worst kind of loneliness, and London is plagued by it.

Other cities aren’t the same. There is something about London specifically that is vacuous, impersonal, unfathomable. It is dangerously easy to lose yourself in. This is exactly why some people love it, but I find myself consciously resisting it, pushing back against the noise. It is hard to hold onto yourself in a city that is constantly pulling you in every direction. 

I don’t hate London. Maybe, on some level, I am quite fond of it, in the same sort of way that you actually quite like the creaking floorboard on your staircase. But there is just something about living in the capital that doesn’t sit right with me. I have made my home – for now – in the wonderfully uneventful Zone 4, but there isn’t a single part of me that feels like a true Londoner. I follow the unspoken public transport rules, I walk so fast I’m basically running and I have accepted that a round of drinks is expensive enough to make me cry – but none of this comes naturally to me. I fall in line, reluctantly, but I yearn for green, space and quiet. London is everything, everywhere, all the time. And I just want a little less.

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