Fear of the countryside (or ‘why I can’t leave London’)
On a journey to see my brother in Bath two weeks back, as the train glided through Wiltshire valleys into mystical Somerset, I was gripped by a looming anxiety; a sensation well-known to me: the fear of leaving London. Wherever I go, as soon as the city disappears from view, I can’t stop thinking about getting back.
A friend, who recently left to start a new chapter back in our sleepy hometown, shared with me his belief that London’s hustle was everything worth leaving behind: a humanly insurmountable wall of noise, haste and greed. But I feel quite the opposite - the hustle gives me calm.
Trying to work out why our feelings were in opposition led me to search for answers to confirm:
a) my being nothing more than a metro-prick losing touch with reality, or
b) the existence of a medically-recognised condition that city-dwellers develop because of sensory overload and a lack of social fulfillment…or something.
On the latter, nothing of note surfaced.
Had I seriously lost the ability to be in the ‘out there’?
A day or so ago, my memory stumbled back upon JG Ballard’s High Rise. For those unfamiliar, the residents of a 40-storey tower block descend into a kind of natural chaos, where different ‘tribes’ form among the floors. Assaults and murders become rife, and services fall into disrepair. It’s filthy and disharmonious, but most importantly, is the nonstop rivalry between those tribes. The book was written on the eve of the Thatcher years, and prophetically captures the birth of the modern, urban dog-eat-dog society, or at least its resemblance to the dark and bloody ancient times we thought we’d left behind.
And here’s the thing— nobody in the story can bring themselves to leave the tower block.
When I came to London, I had big dreams, and though I’ve been lucky in many ways, it hasn’t been — and continues not to be (as many others can attest) — the utopia as described on the shiny wrapper.
Sure, sure, rent’s high, and a pint of lager costs six quid; there are pick-pockets and those without homes; the evening commute is nothing less than a nightmare; and house parties swarm with human peacocks. What city life has given me though, is a heightened sense of survival. No, more than that: a heightened sense of being alive. You and I, fellow city-dweller, are fighting to maintain our place on the figurative food chain. From competing for jobs and housing, to making sure our glutes meet seat on that approaching train, we are fucking fierce.
And there’s something addictive about it, isn’t there? For me at least, I’ve found a sense of purpose. Not a wholesome sense of purpose, but a tactile one that my animal brain can cling on to when I’m struggling to make sense of my existence. When I can smell that I’m being out-evolved in the urban ecosystem, I feel a consequent mad rush of savage instincts that tell me to fight (you can’t run here if you want to live), and this jump-starts the next phase in evolution — to become more attractive to employers, to the opposite sex, to my next landlord and so on.
It all so vicious and vain, and yet when I leave London I feel despair. My inner city evolutions offer no use elsewhere. Out of my urban jungle, when nobody is trying to poach me, mate with me or adopt me into their tribe, I’m lost and confused. Suddenly, I’m forced to gauge my movements and choices by a different set of rules.
We’re a proud and scary people, we, who survive in the city. And our daily battle to endure is what makes our lives seem so brutally — so carnally — attractive. I don’t hate the countryside. I yearn for its peace and acceptance, but could I live there? Of course not.
And to any man or woman who speaks poorly of us in our grey, malajusted habitat, I say to them: “Keep your battery-farmed beasts and your bungalows. Keep your outstanding schools and your £3 pints. We don’t want your Sunday afternoon strolls or your big back gardens, because when the shit hits the fan, we’ll keep on going as we ever did. Nature will take its course, and the best of us will be left. You won’t even starve us out; we’ll eat the dogs and the rats in the streets before we even think of leaving.”
So here, for now, I decide to conclude my quest for answers. I fear the countryside, because when I leave London, my internal beast feels no impulse to fight for its life. Its daily motivations are even more meaningless. An animal I may be, but a metro-prick I am not, because even though this wild city is so nearly too much to keep up with, it represents reality — vicious, warped, and very much life-affirming.
“Already he guessed that, for all their expressed intentions, they would not be leaving either the following morning or any other…” — JG Ballard, High Rise