Small Boy, Big City

Thoughts on London, one year later.

Torn between the North, South, and West of the UK for work, tired of living out a suitcase in hostels, stressing over whether trains had WiFi while cramped into tiny seats with football fans sloshing beer everywhere, I decided to bite the bullet and move down to London permanently in June 2015.

One year on (to the day, I might add), and I’m still here. It was a big move for a country boy like myself. I grew up the rural mountains of North Wales, and the biggest city I had lived in previously was Preston, Lancashire with a relatively small population of about 115,000. To put it into perspective, London alone has over twice the population of the entirety of my native country.

So what have I learnt in the past year living in the Goliath capital of the UK? Of course, everyone knows the standard complaints — no housing, rent is too high, beer is too expensive, food is too posh. But what about the experiences, the feeling of the city?

Utter toss

When I first announced my move, everyone had an opinion to offer. The three standard responses were:

  • “How can you afford to do that? Isn’t London so expensive?”
  • “London is rubbish, the people are rubbish, it’s all pretentious garbage”
  • “Oh my god, that’s amazing! London is so cool!!”

Everyone I’ve met has an opinion of London. Everyone from the local homeless man to your Nan will hold an opinion — and not any opinion but a strong opinion. It won’t be “good” or “bad”, it must be “amazing” or “utter toss”. Butchers, barbers, postmen, your mates, your enemies, a guy on the bus, even Londoners. All have an opinion; all must make it known. Tell someone you’re moving to Stoke-On-Trent, or Chester, or Brighton. I can promise nobody will hold such a strong, spiritually-embedded opinion of the place.

All of this amounts to something I like to call the London factor. Now, this makes me sound like such a massively pretentious hipster-wannabe that I’m cringing even thinking about writing the words, but here I go: London is inherently cool. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s a place where dreams are made, careers are chased, celebrities party, artists make art, and musicians make music. It’s a place of infinite opportunity, of endless shining streets paved with gold and overdue rent bills. On a brief trip backpacking around Europe some years ago, almost every non-UK citizen I met gushed about London, about wanting to live there, make it there, become a Londoner. It’s genuinely something I relish when the voice inside my head momentarily stops telling me to drop the ego.

Side note: Don’t brag about living here. Nothing will make people do a 180 degree turn on their views of you and London than a constant reminder that you live in London, and did this in London, and ate lunch in London, and blah blah blah London London London.

Now, on the subject of repeatedly reminding people you live in London and sounding like a prat:

Slices of life

I remember walking south toward the Thames from my East London flat, going through parks, housing estates, past flats full of rich investment bankers, all the way to Ian McKellen’s pub “The Grapes”. Sitting on it’s small balcony which juts out into the muddy waters of the Thames, bathed in sunshine and hearing the lapping of the waves on the wood, it felt blissful. It felt like the kind of day out you wouldn’t have in many — or any — other locales. Sunny streets and parks filled with such a mash of people from a mash of different lives, ending up overlooking riverboats while eating crisps dangling over a famous river in a place owned by a beloved actor… where else could you find that?

Wrapping up warm and eating crepes at Winter Wonderland in Hyde park, seeing the thousands milling around. Rooftops with fancy cocktails and everyone wearing something far too summery for the autumnal weather, a man plinking away on a guitar. Sitting in a local bar and letting the conversations of people wash over you — struggling actors, a band that was just signed a record deal, a writer, a lawyer, a shop assistant. All with their own slices of life, all momentarily popping into my own.

In small towns or small cities I’ve lived in previously, the atmosphere feels insular — the locale is the centre-point. In London, you feel like part of something bigger — not in an insignificant sense, but rather you can feel all these other completely unique lives churning along, all vital parts of a titanic machine, London is the vessel which carries these lives. I’ve found this to be something I adore in every major city I’ve visited, and embedding myself in the Capital has only increased the feeling.

Unfortunately, embedding myself in London has also cursed me with an attitude change.

A running joke

When I first arrived, I didn’t understand the silence and grimness of the tube, the people in business-wear dashing around. I remember seeing people getting angry at tourists for standing in the way. I recall thinking “I won’t be like that. I know what it’s like to be an outsider here. These people are enjoying a brand new experience, who am I to ruining that by getting in a huff because they want a picture of Big Ben etc..? What’s the rush?”

Yeah, that didn’t last.

I’ve increasingly found myself to be dashing around, head down and feet pounding. I swear internally when some idiot cuts me off my predetermined path on the underground. I huff and sigh when some tourist blocks up the pavement or stops in the middle of a path, right in my bloody way. I’ve gone from a mellow, hippy-ish attitude to tourists and visitors to screaming “MOVE MOVE MOVE” in my head on a daily basis. “Obey the social laws of London” I loudly think, “OBEY OR LEAVE.”

Sorry Granny, but you have three seconds to shift your luggage or I’m throwing you onto the tube tracks.

The virtues of an all-quinoa diet

Pretention and generally acting “oh-so-cool” or “oh-so-cultured” is something I’ve yet to come to terms with. Every event seems seeped in people who are caricatures of the urbanite, cosmopolitan artistic youth I mocked so heavily throughout my life. Some of it seems forced, like everyone is struggling to keep up the charade while talking about the virtues of an all-quinoa diet, while other times it seems I’m genuinely surrounded by people far too cool for myself.

Ever since I was old enough to realise being cool was a thing, my brain placed me firmly in the “lame” camp. I was chronically uncool through secondary school, college, university, and I remain uncool to this day in a trend that’s set to continue for the foreseeable future. Being surrounded by try-hards or genuinely slick individuals has given me a crises of confidence. I don’t know what it means to “do” events or go out or converse anymore. Is it normal to stand around silently in a circle, surrounding a metal band playing in a disused warehouse? Do people not clap or cheer bands anymore? Is it really enlightening when someone reads out 30 minutes of slam poetry in a screaming voice? Does everything have to have quail eggs and avocado on it / in it / with it? Do people really enjoy any of this? Yes? No?!

I don’t know where to go, what to do when I get there, or how to approach people, let alone talk to them through their frame of reference, or at least assumed frame of reference. I may as well be speaking ancient Gaelic to a deaf octopus.

Far more stuff

London is big. “Yeah, duh,” I hear you all sighing, but it’s size can’t be under-emphasised. It’s huge. Colossally massive. Seemingly infinite in its reach. I don’t think I explored 1/100th of the area I lived in West London when I first arrived, let alone any portion of the entire city. With this size comes innumerable places to see and do merry; bars, restaurants, pop-up shops, galleries, museums, on and on and on and on, dominating every road in endless supply. My first impression was this was an amazing thing — there was far more stuff available than ever before. Indeed, I still consider it a good thing, but it comes at a price.

See, back up North I was big into punk music (still am, actually), and the local independent punk scene in places like Manchester. You bumped into the same people, all down to Earth and friendly, all there for the music and to get drunk. There were also a set of open mic nights which I frequented where little communities developed around the weekly sessions. Musicians met up, drank, sang, played together. It was perfect.

There were basically two or three venues I went to. If you didn’t like them, tough. But it meant you were stuck like everyone else, and because everyone was forced into these few establishments, you were bound to meet like-minded people. In London, there are so many unique and niche locations around, it’s hard to find that place that suits you just right. There are so many places which have little or no publicity that I’ve found it near-impossible to find the signal in the noise, especially looking for authentic or niche places. As someone who once publicly played music at least once or twice a week at my peak, it’s a mark of shame that I’ve not sang at an open mic night for an entire year.

Circle-shaped holes

Maybe I’m being too negative here. Am I forcing myself to find a sense of community too quickly? Maybe I’m pushing myself to find a connection when really it’s something that happens naturally.

I’m also probably being a bit hard on myself. Moving to a brand new city, and then moving again to the opposite side of it only 8 months in, starting a new job, changing jobs, and generally only having the last month or so to settle down has been a whirlwind. Time has, in the most clichéd sense, flown by. It genuinely feels like I moved in yesterday. Perhaps I’ve just not had the time to find my own little chunk of London to carve off and claim as my own, and that’s just fine for now.

Plus, I’ve not even begun to mention the career opportunities this city has offered me. I’ve not talked about the insane events like seeing a documentary premiere at a BAFTA screening, or taking part in a radio play (I was awful, and my character switched accents on a scene by scene basis), the street parties with their blasting, brilliant bass, the hundreds of other things and moments. It’s truly the most eclectic place I’ve ever lived, and I’m shocked my country-boy-brain hasn’t exploded from the billions of surreal things that have happened. There’s also the human experiences, the stuff and events that tie together life regardless of where you are; but there have been many, and they have been beautiful.

This next year: I want to experience more of everything. I want to find myself a community or two to be a part of and really explore the local areas. I want to stop trying to be cool and fit into circle-shaped holes when I’m really a square. I mean c’mon, what’s less cool than trying too hard?

If anyone is thinking of doing the same as me, I would say take the leap because it’s an experience you won’t forget. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you’ll hate it, but it’ll sure as hell be interesting. These are my experiences of London and mine alone, yours will almost certainly be different.

One year in London, and my verdict? I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

And hey, maybe you’re one of those people who really really really likes slam poetry and talking about quinoa.

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