One of my close friends just posted on Facebook that today is the 14th anniversary of her moving to London, and that reminded me that, while I am unclear of the exact date, this month marks my 14th anniversary as a Londoner too. That’s quite a long time!
In those 14 years I have lived in a flat and two different houses, worked in two different paid jobs and one voluntary one, got married, had several miscarriages and two children, spent 10 years as a stay-at-home-mum, published two books and become a cat owner. Or have become owned by a cat. Fairly momentous life changes during which London has sometimes had a star role, other times being relegated to mere backdrop.
I can vividly remember the intense fizzing excitement of arriving in London one dark October evening. Our good friend had hired a van and driven up to Birmingham to help us move our stuff. We arrived at our little rented flat, the ground floor of a three storey converted Victorian house in Clapham, and my boyfriend (now husband) and our friend started moving furniture in, while I was left with the van to guard against traffic wardens as we didn’t have a parking permit. Sitting in the front of that van, all our worldly possessions in the back, looking through the lit windows of the other houses and flats in the street, the people moving around in their homes, filled me with a sense of enormous potential. London has always had the ability to make me feel as though I was living in a film or a book, right from that very first night.
I loved being a young professional twenty-something Londoner. Grabbing a skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin from Starbucks on my way into the office. Having lunch in Regent’s Park, or nipping down to Oxford Street or Marylebone High Street for some sneaky retail therapy. Going for impromptu drinks or pizza with friends after work, or getting last minute theatre tickets or going to a lecture at the LSE. Even the nights I went home via the Sainsbury’s Local to grab a ready meal to eat while watching trashy TV had a certain Bridget Jonesque glamour for me.
After a couple of years the urge to live somewhere with a bedroom big enough that the double bed wasn’t crammed against the wall and where the kitchen was more than a section of corridor housing a cooker, fridge and sink overwhelmed us, and we bought our own little terraced house, in Walthamstow in East London.
Moving in day then was a different kind of excitement. I was so proud of our new home, and thrilled to be living independently again after six weeks living out of suitcases in my mother-in-law’s spare room after a delay with the contracts, but this time the joy was tempered with responsibility. I felt a bit more grown-up, and I started a scrapbook – basically a non-tech version of Pinterest before Pinterest was ever a thing – of furniture or styles or ideas for our house. Central London was still the centre of my life, where I worked every day and where we normally socialised, but without realising it I was also starting to put down tiny roots in my own home and the community I lived in.
A couple of years after that we had our first child, and suddenly I had deepened my relationship with the city by giving birth to a native Londoner. I also discovered a new side both to my community – health centres, Sure Start centres, rhyme time at the library – and my adopted city. People talk about needing to move out of London when they have children, but other than the obvious challenge of finding affordable housing, I find that a really odd concept. I get concerns about air pollution, and I do share them. But actually, I find it easier to live a greener life in London where I can walk to almost everywhere I need to go, and rely on ultra-frequent public transport for trips I can’t make on foot, than I would in the suburbs or countryside where lower density housing makes services less accessible and driving more of a necessity.
London with children is a joy. So many free museums and galleries with amazing interactive activities. An abundance of classes and groups, again, many free or very cheap. Stunning parks and green spaces with fabulous play areas. Kids Go Free theatre month every August. Open House in September. An astounding choice of places to eat out, most of which we have found to be very child friendly, and an equally vast range of takeaway options for the (many, many) nights when you are too exhausted to cook after the children finally go to bed.
I am also proud to be raising my children in such a diverse and multi-cultural society. As debates about Brexit and immigration have divided the country I am delighted that I don’t see divisions like that in our community. My youngest has just started school and made some new friends – of her little gang, one girl is half Italian, two boys are half Spanish, one girl is half-German, one girl is half-French and one girl is half-Danish. Their classroom is basically the EU in miniature. Around a third of children in my kids’ school come from BAME backgrounds and these differences in language, religion and culture are continually celebrated.
My life now as a stay-at-home mum and writer revolves much more around Walthamstow than central London. And I love that. I love the community that sees me come home from the school run, as I did this morning, to find a free loaf of artisan sourdough bread on the doorstep which a neighbour had rescued on Olio and left for me. I love the network of friends I have built up, the connections, the lives we have made for ourselves here. But I also love that London is like a fairy godmother waiting in the wings to sprinkle a little glamour and excitement into my life when I need it – whether that is a meet-up with friends where we drink fizz in the champagne bar of the gloriously restored St Pancras Station, or the rare occasions husband and I do get a baby-sitter and have a date night out on the town, or I get tickets to a theatre performance or comedy show.
There is a darker side to London which I am not unaware of. Pollution, litter, gangs, crime, homelessness, poverty, drug abuse. They are all sadly problems in most, if not all, big cities and many smaller communities too. But I can honestly say that for each and every one of those problems I know a person or people or an organisation in London working hard to combat them. London is a hopeful, optimistic, problem-solving city, and one which after fourteen years here I still find more than a little magical.