Is London still a place to live?

London (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Along with everyone who isn’t getting a six-figure bonus, but is having a baby, we have recently joined the legions of people who used to live in some quaint flat near an urban park and a main road selling whatever is the local speciality, but now live in a commuter town within an hour’s travel time of London. Since our particular town is Milton Keynes, it’s quite a cultural shift after twelve years of the capital’s delights.

My first memory of London is Hamley’s toy shop, which of course seemed like a magically exciting place to a 7 year old. My second memory is of deciding to leave my bag behind a mirror when I went to the toilet in Liberty’s in 1985. When I came out of the toilet, the bag and the entire floor were populated by security guards phoning the police and evacuating people from the area. That was quite embarrassing, and was the last time I ever left a bag unattended (well, apart from when I was drunk and left it in a bar, obviously).

It is a wonderful place to live, but every time I think of the finer details of my time there, I can’t quite work out why. When I first lived in London, I was spending over half my income on the rent of a room in a damp basement flat in Tulse Hill. It was quite a big room, which I rented with good friends, so it seemed kind of worth it. All my shoes went mouldy from the damp, and as I needed a few pay cheques before I could buy any furniture, I slept on an air mattress for a few months. You had to catch a bus to the tube, or get one of two trains an hour into London Bridge, so pretty much anywhere was at least 45 minutes away. It all felt quite gritty, and only a  middle class girl could secretly relish how “real” it was, as I waited at Brixton station every night in the crush for the Number 2 bus, and listened as the guy next outside the KFC listed the available drugs to any passer-by under 25.  We then upgraded to a house in Streatham. It had a Balham postcode (and therefore an air of respectability), but was five minutes from Streatham High Road, which I still think is one of the most depressing places on earth. Half of the shops are boarded up, including some beautiful art deco buildings that used to house a cinema and a bingo hall. The existing shops look as if the owners are heavily armed. One day, I was walking down the street very early in the morning when a young man asked me to give him all my money. When I declined, he clarified both the nature of the question, and the strength of his hands, quite emphatically. This probably contributed to my decision to leave South London’s edgy atmosphere and its transport frustrations behind.  I moved to Dartmouth Park in North London, and lived as a lodger in someone’s attic, mostly sitting at the window writing long love letters I never sent. I also tried to like the Cafe Mozart on Swain’s Lane, because the name raised hopes of some Austro-Hungarian delights, but it was a self-service cafe that sold cheap cake made with margarine. The room was a bit too small after a while, so I found a cheap double room in a rickety old mansion block just off Highgate Hill. It was the most beautiful area to live, right next to Waterlow Park, and very close to Hampstead Heath. We sometimes went to the pub quiz at the Prince of Wales, and enjoyed the 30-minute queue for a drink at The Flask. Anything in London that involves purchasing food or drink for consumption outside seems to attract half the population of Europe. Even the really manky terrace outside The Spaniards seemed to mean hanging about inside for at least 20 minutes in a poorly defined drinks queue.

This idyll of living very cheaply (I never met the landlord, but he must be running the flats on Hornsey Lane as some sort of gratefully received charity) in one of the most expensive areas of London was spoilt slightly by the fact that one of my male flatmates  had a penchant for wandering around naked. He was also known as Rick with a silent P. The other occupant was an anaemic Spanish girl who appeared to eat nothing but tomatoes, and sat in her room chain smoking. Eventually the pubic hair on the sofa was just too gross, so I moved to Maida Vale with my twin sister and a friend, and spent three years in a lovely flat with some communal gardens at the back – which I never set foot in because I didn’t get around to getting the key off the porter. It was so central that walking to work in Victoria and subsequently on Tottenham Court Road was quite feasible. We often went for kebabs on Edgware Road, and to Raoul’s on Clifton Avenue for the best – and most expensive – breakfasts.  After we failed to retain the third flatmate (living with two identical twins must’ve made the extra person feel like they had the wrong genes), we both moved to a top floor flat in West Hampstead, just down from the synagogue off West End Lane. It was probably the nicest place I’ve lived in London, with the overground trains going to Westfield and Islington, and the Jubilee Line straight through to Canary Wharf. There was a nice bagel shop, and a noodle place, and a whole bunch of the usual chain restaurants. Regent’s Park was not very far, and we went to the open air theatre a few times. Finchley Road had a large Waitrose, a small climbing wall and a really nice Hungarian cafe that did indeed do all the Viennese cakes. We were only down the road from the Heath, even if I did finally discover that it’s West Heath which is best avoided at dusk on a sunny day – unless you’re a man, looking for an assignation. It was quite an amusing sight, lots of blokes wandering around looking for specific GPS coordinates on their phones, and then standing nonchalantly by a tree in the middle of a thicket. I kept up a brisk jog, particularly when on one occasion an ugly altercation broke out that appeared to be about non-payment. I used to cycle, or sometimes run, the 12 miles to and from work in Canary Wharf.  We only moved because I wanted to move in with my boyfriend, and his part of London was the general direction of Islington, which I generally considered very far East.

So the last place I lived in London was a new area to me; we were just the other side of Islington, theoretically in Hackney, but it was a lovely corner that was closer to Stoke Newington and Clissold Park. It was a loft conversion of some sort, with the main bedroom under the eaves of the house, and some lovely cubbyholes that I was theoretically going to write that novel in. It had two bathrooms, and a spare bedroom for family to stay. The living space was pretty tiny, with a little cooking corner in the living room, and a large counter that doubled as work-space and table. The sofa was an Ikea monstrosity it was impossible to get comfortable in, and the washing machine didn’t work properly. But it was so exciting, living somewhere new again, living with the man I was going to marry, and we woke up on the first morning of the 25th November 2012 full of so much joy at the thought of sharing this space together successfully, and of all the plans for the future if it all worked out the way it looked like it would. We tried out some great Turkish kebab places on Blackstock Road, and went to Camden Market together, which I hadn’t been back to since my teens. I used to find it so exciting back when tie-dyed T shirts were cool, but the endless crowd of tattoo & dreadlock posers does get a bit tedious – I still think their parents are all accountants, and they’re just having some faux rebellion fun before they also join the ranks of PWC.

The trouble is, you can’t easily make it work having kids in London, unless you have the funds to live on Hampstead Lane. It’s probably fine until they’re two, but the air quality is surely not good for small lungs, and getting into a school where they won’t get stabbed seems to involve sucking up to a myriad of church people. You can only afford to live somewhere nice if you both work full-time, so it kind of defeats the point of having a family. It’s all just a stressful competition with everyone else for every advantage that only means you spend less time with your kids.  I grew up in cities, but Australian cities don’t really count, with their half-acre gardens and good-enough schools in affordable areas.

I do wish I could be there, in the heart of life, observing the whole world as it comes to see the sights, work in the square mile or perform in the theatre. People may not believe the streets are paved with gold, but they all want to come here.

I still live close enough to London to take a train there for an evening out, so I don’t know why it feels so different not actually living there. We now have so much space I can actually lose track of where in the house my other half is. Shopping involves hopping in the car and driving all of five minutes to the biggest Sainsbury’s I’ve ever seen. I can go and sit in the garden and watch the fish swim around the pond. The only snag is that if I want to try a nice bit of sushi, I can’t just walk up the road and pick one of about five options on Upper Street. It’ll be easier to forget about London once a tiny infant puts paid to any desire for spontaneity.

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