I’m always baffled by those serene souls who manage to have civilised divorces. How on earth is it possible to make small talk with someone who’s taken you to the heights of ecstasy, the depths of dismay and the boundless boulevards of bedroom boredom and not remain a tiny bit incandescently angry that you wasted so many summers on them?
I couldn’t even break up with the city of my dreams in a moderate manner; one day I was all over London – literally and figuratively – and the next (well, after two decades) I was on the train to the seaside. There followed a good twenty years when I would go to any lengths to swerve my former flame, even when I had the chance to meet up with people I loved there; I would invent ailments, even stooping to agoraphobia, which proved a little awkward when I bumped into one of my much-cancelled mates at the airport en route to Tel Aviv, in a somewhat ‘sociable’ mood to say the least. But such revulsion often comes in the wake of a great passion, and that was certainly the case with me.
How I loved London as a kiddy! Other teenage girls might have interfered with themselves on their virginal beds to posters of David Cassidy, but I preferred the London Underground map. I knew that only when I got there could I truly be my glittering, vicious, born-slippy self – and I was right. And then, exactly halfway through my thirties – surely the official onset of middle-age – I woke up and asked myself ‘Why am I spending so much time in taxis when I could be lying on a beach?’ Thus my triumphant exile to Brighton took place; twenty-three years later, I still feel like I’m on holiday, and you can’t say better than that about the place where you put out the rubbish.
As the Bank Holidays get warmer, we brace ourselves for the bladdered, blessed bounty that is tourism as landlubbers are merrily decanted from trains, streaming down the Queens Road to the seafront just like they did a whopping eighty years ago as chronicled by Graham Greene in Brighton Rock:
‘They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the 5 tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour…’
Who can blame them? I like a bit of a throng, mainly because it adds an even deeper appreciation when the crowds depart and we have our debauched darling to ourselves again. But a lot of them will decide that they don’t want to go back to a life more landlocked. Though I moan about young middle-class London families driving out the indigenous and the inglorious of my ‘hood, I can’t deny that I felt a thrill of smuggery when I read that my very own postcode – BN3 – is the most sought-after location in England and Wales for home buyers aged between 25 and 44.
The number of people leaving London has increased 80 per cent in the past five years, according to research by Savills estate agent, with the bolting being led by those in their thirties; it can often feel like 80 per cent of them are moving into my seafront square. Their logic is undeniable. Research from Oxford University identified an ‘hourglass’ shape in London’s income distribution, busting out at the top and bottom – the number of poor households and very rich ones has risen by 80 per cent – and wasting away in the middle, whose numbers has shrunk by 43 per cent. ‘Everyone in the top one per cent probably generates about six jobs. They need nannies, cleaners, maybe chauffeurs. But in that scenario we do get a hollowing out,’ as one of the researchers put it. This vision of the capital as a monopoly board of the super-rich, with the wretched of the earth of all nations shipped in to service them in every way imaginable, is not an attractive one.
But last week, heading back to Victoria, I had a satori in a taxi. As we stopped in traffic in Trafalgar Square, I prepared to fume as usual – but instead I actually looked at what was in front of me. Two young Sikh policemen were cautioning a truculent hipster – the clash of man-buns, both righteous and wrong, made a beautiful image of true diversity. A group of Chinese students, a breed known for their reserve, were performing a sort of Sino-haka – ‘We are in LONDON – we are in LONDON!’ they chanted. And on the zebra crossing in front of me, a middle-aged black man was crossing, pushing an over-loaded pallet in sweltering sunshine, but with a smile so incandescent that I instinctively looked to the other side of the street expecting to see a loved one. But no one was there – he was smiling sheerly to himself, alive, in London.
Call me a sentimental sap, but I got a distinct shiver down my spine despite the heat. It seemed in that moment that London appeared such a monster because the human spiritual desire to survive, strive and achieve can often be mistaken for greed when it actually has more to do with freedom and hope. Yes, young middle-classes families are bailing, but are they such a loss? What talented teenager ever grew up yearning to run away and be JUST LIKE THAT? I remembered the comedian I’d heard on the radio recently saying ‘You know the best smell in the world? Hove. I just got back from there. It smells of clean sea, cut grass and really expensive coffee’ and how I’d hugged myself at his description of my daily morning stroll to my volunteer job. But sitting in the roaring traffic’s boom and watching the Londoners go after their dreams, this struck me as quite vile smuggery on my part.
So there you go – I came to bury London, as I’ve done in a dozen rants down the decades and ended up praising it. Yes, I’d never move back there – but perhaps that’s because of a laziness, a loucheness and a self-satisfaction in me which my chosen hometown encourages and justifies. Perhaps it wasn’t you, London – perhaps it was me, all along. I’ll never abuse myself to your tube map again, but maybe you’re the first ex to make me remember why I loved you.