Never mind all that seasons of mists and mellow whatever-it-is, autumnal melancholia is creeping in. The air smells of back to school. Those funny little City of Westminster machines are breezing up Oxford Street again, blowing the autumn leaves into confused puddles. Thoughts return to new beginnings at this time of year, and as if I needed any further proof of my age (which I don’t, frankly, given the state of my knees) I realised that it was seventeen years ago this week that I moved into London. Seventeen years?! Seven, surely? Had their been a miscalculation? That must make me nearly forty or something. Oh dear. Soon I shall be saying “It’s 37 years since I moved to London….” and then soon after that I’ll just be one of those old people dribbling at a bus stop and smelling faintly of damp matter. You grow up and as a child, discover the famous people who share your birthday. Now, there is a famous person who shares my birthday but he is ten years younger than me. The people are getting smaller, younger. I am getting older, achier, indelibly prone to a clicking of the joints.
When I moved to London it was so long ago that the other recession was still on. You know, the one that was kick-started by that female cook’s father, Nigel, who decided to cap interest rates at 25% and herald all sorts of nonsense and Black Wednesday. In October 1994, I moved in with one of my several brothers, and my brother’s solution to my immiment tenancy was novel : we got a kitten.
It arrived the same morning I did, straight from a drug dealer of a well established jazz singer, and threw itself at the walls for seven weeks. But on the day both Cat and I made the flat our home, we sort of couldn’t find it. Mum had driven me into town, kindly dropped me off in a pile of cheap knickers and Silk Cut King Sizes, and simultaneously, seven-week old Cat had disappeared.
My brother thought Cat had been catnapped by mother, who may, he reasoned, have been in a state of trauma and grief following the removal of her youngest child from the family homestead. Therefore, she may have removed Cat in an attempt to surrogate it. Should we, then, phone Dad and say “When Mum comes home, look about person for Cat?” I, only one hour from the family homestead, and wishing with all my heart that I had remained there, rather than transcend into this domestic tomfoolery where a recently-purchased Cat had got lost. Ultimately, the cat was located under that most 1990s of things : a futon, where she had taken cover.
By the time it could be let out of the flat, the local feline population ran for cover. Then Cat would come shooting back in through its flap du chat, with it’s tail the size of a toilet brush and half an ear hanging off, the result of some risible, yowling cat-off. Its experience of the flat was as dubious as my own. Seven months later I left, although not through the flap du chat but through the (broken) front door with Waitrose carrier bags, to seek shelter on another brother’s floor for 6 weeks until the end of the student year. Cat remained.
For eight months me and my three siblings lived within 3 streets of each other and developed a sort of communal labour saving devices project. Only one of them had a car. Only one of them had a tumble dryer. But not the same one. So if you wanted a lift you’d go to one brother’s flat and then on to another brother’s flat to dry your smalls. If you got desperate and Car Brother was not available, you could go to Bicycle Brother for a lift, but you would have to share the basket with the Cat. Tumble Dryer Brother had a neighbour with a different method of drying her clothes : a mad woman living in the flat beneath him who started to regularly burn her underwear on the balcony and would continue until the Fire Brigade came. Car Brother was also Dog Brother. Dog was particularly useful to Tumble Dryer Brother as a tool used to pick up women on Primrose Hill. Cat Brother had already discovered that Cat had the same effect when being transported on London Underground. Car Brother threw a few parties which was convenient as the rest of us didn’t have far to walk home. When it came to Cat and Dog, never the twain met. If Tumble Dryer Brother wasn’t at home, there was only two or three cafes in the district he was likely to be patronising. We were all almost always able to be located. Then Car Brother went radical, and with some input from a lady produced a baby and became Baby Brother. After a year of this, even the Cat had had enough. I realised I hadn’t left home at all, in fact, it was worse ; I’d left a house with only two other family members living in it, and moved into a soap opera where four of us were living, with no home cooking, no money, two telephones between four of us, and none of the parental ballast of the mother/father authoritarian figure to pour calming oil on the choppy waters of ever frequent and demoralizing sibling rows. It was time, I thought, eight months after leaving home, to leave home. I decamped to the unknown terrain of North East London. But I continued to miss the clothes washing facilities.
Of course, I never had any money. I was surviving on Silly Pounds a week, bunking tube fares (much easier before the machines were introduced) and eating vastly horrible foodstuffs, before hauling my washing home to my astonished parents on Friday nights, and then returning two days later with packets of aluminium foil-folded food. But the strangest thing happened to me in my first week in London : walking down the road I lived in, I found three £20 notes folded up neatly in half, lying on the pavement. Of course I pocketed it and thought it was a turn-up for the area. Usually the only thing you would find on the pavement in the morning would be shards of glass from the windows of cars smashed in the night before. This would normally happen every night in those days (this was before West Hampstead became achingly smart). But £60? It was a prince’s sum to an 18 year old student – I mean, think of the bottles of Hooch I could buy with that!
Then, three days later, the same thing happened again. Further up the road, near where our road met the bottleneck traffic congestion of the Finchley Road, I found another two folded £20 notes. In four days, I had found £100.
Obviously, I thought this was setting a type of precedent. I just believed that people in London dropped their cash about willy nilly, and that it was inevitable I would come across an average of £5,000 per annum. In short, for reasons that were not apparent, the city wasted no time in demonstrating to me that its streets were in fact paved with gold.
It never happened again.
But, despite the poverty, the crappity crapness of navigating a cold, wet London in student-thin clothes and bemoaning the absence of home comforts, I had – finally – found my space. After eighteen years of not quite fitting in somehow to the home village, one Monday I moved to London. London was never cheap, ever. The boom years didn’t really make a huge difference to the student generation of mid-1990s London. Wealth was already fabulously out of reach, even then. It has simply remained so. Since I moved to London I have had 8 homes; I’ve flat-shared with all sorts, from a farmer’s daughter who used to return on Sunday nights and slap a recently shot pheasant onto the dining room table, and a bovine, callous Middle-Easterner who monopolised the telephone and employed a cleaner who used to rearrange the living room furniture every time she visited. I’ve lived in a flat underneath a insomniac who walked the flat floorboards all night, whilst the flat below was inhabited by party monsters who’d get home at 5am with jelly-fried drug brains and put the techno on. I’ve lived in basement flats where sitting at my desk meant staring at pairs of walking shoes all day. I’ve lived in arctic attic bedrooms where the carpet would blow up like a balloon when a strong wind ran through the house, and I lived in a flat where I filled the gap in the window frames with a pair of old socks. But, it’s not just the myth that the streets are paved with gold in London that my experience has exposed, but the myth that people don’t get to know their neighbours. I’ve known all my neighbours. One strode in and rescued a wasp for me; another brought me back my favourite tea from Israel. A third flooded my bathroom, however, but you can’t have everything. The daily wears and tears don’t tend to break you when you’ve fallen for a city, and my love affair with London was pretty much a done deal a long time ago. On that Monday, seventeen years ago, I moved to London. By Thursday I had decided to make a life here.
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