When I posted the other day about moving to London, it sounded like I’ve never even visited the place. That’s not entirely true… so in order to prove that I’m not a total hillbilly I’ve been trying to remember the dozen or so occasions that I have been to the city, and recall some of the details. I contemplated sticking up some pictures to accompany this post, but really, no one needs to see me standing in a Harris Tweed skirt, clutching a bottle of water and pointing excitedly at the Camden Town tube sign. You’ll just have to take my word for it on the existence of that classic shot.
At some point, soon after finishing high school, I went down for a weekend with my Mum, and stayed in the spare room at my brother’s house in Ealing. My abiding memory of that trip is that he had a noise-activated clock that lit up and projected the time on the ceiling if you clapped your hands. Unfortunately I had a cold, and every time I coughed during the night it also activated the damn thing and flooded the room with light. Between that and the flat’s location directly under the Heathrow flight path, it was not the most restful of holidays. Other than that, all I can remember is having my photo taken beside all the street names that I’d hear of, like Covent Garden, Leicester Square and the aforementioned Camden Town. Probably a habit I should drop if we’re moving there.
My chronology might be a bit off, but I think the next time I was down was a year or two later with my lovely friend Katy; we were both on a mission to do interviews with writers for Fest magazine. We shared a room at a hostel in Bayswater and then she headed off to interview Alain de Botton at his house near Paddington, while I headed off to interview Howard Jacobson at his flat in Soho. She came back disappointed that Alain was prematurely balding, and not as attractive or youthful as the picture on the back of his books had led her to believe. I came back disappointed than Howard had been a prickly and awkward interview subject, and deeply un-cooperative with the Fest photographer. His flat was lovely, though. Katy and I consoled each other on the South Bank, sitting in the sun and drinking several large glasses of wine.
The longest I’ve ever spent in London was three weeks around Christmas 2004 when I was doing an internship at a national newspaper. I split my time between the arts desk – calling John Berger for his reaction to Susan Sontag’s death, trying to track down Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the film Hotel Rwanda, and contributing to numerous end of year highlight lists – and the news desk, which was full of people frantically trying to keep up with the stories coming in about the Indonesian tsunami. It was not a jolly time.
On Christmas Eve, when everyone else in the office went home to their own families, some friends of a friend of a friend briefly adopted me. I went to a church service with a wonderful, kind family I didn’t know, gatecrashed their Christmas Eve dinner, watched the Snowman with their toddler children, and was then dropped me off at a Travelodge near Kings Cross. I drank miniatures of vodka, and paid £12 to watch a bad porn film (is there any other kind?). On Christmas morning an ex-boyfriend collected me, and we spent the day delivering meals to the elderly in Hammersmith. On New Year’s Eve, I sat alone in my brother’s flat, (with that damn light-up clock again), watching the fireworks on television, eating M&S tiger prawns out of a plastic tub and drinking a bottle champagne that I’d bought last minute at Waterloo station. As I said, it was not a jolly time.
I’m very grateful to the London friends who tried their best to take care of me over those few weeks – I was treated to lunch in Covent Garden, pints in Soho, and copious quantities of dim sum in Chinatown, but despite their best efforts it was a pretty miserable festive season. I drank too much, relied too heavily on Big Macs, and got lost on the tube a lot. I went to a pantomime at the Old Vic… by myself. Ian McKellen’s Widow Twanky was wonderful, but there can be few things sadder than being a 21 year old single woman and going to panto on your own.
Fortunately, the next time I was in London for any length of time – early 2006 – I was in great company. I’d been selected to do the Ben and Jerry’s/WWF Climate Change College, and was there with my fellow students for a few days of workshops. We stayed in a funky little hotel in Earls Court, and attended some amazing lectures at the Royal Geographical Society before heading out for food and dancing every night. At the end of the week, we all headed to the IMAX cinema and attended the first UK Screening of An Inconvenient Truth. There is another picture of me somewhere looking goofy beside Al Gore. Forgive me if I don’t dig that one out either.
Most recently, I have known London through quick visits for work (pre DorkySon), and occasional weekend trips with DorkyDad (also pre parenthood!). Here is what I know. There is not one London, there are many Londons – millions, even. Every resident of the city has their own favourite park, and pub, and specialist shop. It is easy to wander down one street and find a tiny wee Italian restaurant, where you can watch the chefs kneading your pizza dough, and then wander down another and chance upon a beautiful public square full of birds and squirrels and people sitting on picnic rugs. If you want to buy a silk tie there’s a place for that, and if you need a particular brand of chilli sauce there’s a place for that. Until now, I have barely scratched the surface of the place… I can’t wait to get there and dig a little deeper. More importantly, I can’t wait to go to the panto again this year… this time with my family.