Walking across Waterloo Bridge this week, having just seen a fantastic West End show (Dreamgirls – it was amazing, go and see it), I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in the capital city. London at night time is always just a little bit magical, and even though I’ve had a varied relationship with the city over the years, seeing the Eye and Big Ben’s bright lights and shimmering reflections on one side of the bridge and St Paul’s on the other always makes me feel grateful and reminds me that I love it.
Not everybody has the chance to live in a world-renowned city, to pop and see a world-class show after work, to dine on cuisine from anywhere around the world at any time of the day or night, to shop in the same places as Kate Middleton or to eat dinner in the same restaurant as Tom Jones (yes, really!).
My relationship with London has gone through many iterations throughout the years. I remember the childhood trips in which I’d spend weeks making posters covered in union jacks and “London Baby!” (this was peak Friends season 4 time and I also loved a felt tip or two), meticulously planning my outfit and saving my pocket money for a tie die top from Covent Garden market (which definitely shrunk and faded after the first wash) or something in the sale from New Look on Oxford Street. Exploring the sights and navigating the tube as a family of four, definitely mistakenly eating in an Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse one fateful time, we had a ball. Even then I remember saying I’d like to live there one day, but I don’t think I really believed myself; always thought the city was far too cool and grown up for me.
Studying at university in Reading, London was ridiculously close – but we still only made it into the city a handful of times. During my final year I completed two weeks’ work experience at Penguin, experienced for the first time the life of a commuter – a stark and horrifying contrast to that of an English student with three hours of lectures per week. I was terrified for the duration, but felt a glimpse of the glamour and freedom that London offered. There seemed no other option but to move to London after graduation.
That summer I applied for job after job after job; travelled backwards and forwards to countless interviews (my mother even came with me to one – we made a day of it and saw a show) with little success. I finally made it to London several months later, but Penguin’s shiny open plan HQ on The Strand was replaced by a distinctly less glamorous tumbledown office in Tooting: my first job at a remainder book company. Nevertheless, I was a Londoner! I bought an Oyster Card, met friends for drinks after work, went on nights out in Clapham and took walks on Wimbledon Common.
My Mum came to visit; we spent days and days shopping at Westfield, on Oxford Street, at Borough Market. How I wish I’d invited her more, that we could have had even just one more day encouraging each other to buy something else unnecessary. It’s never the same without my shopping buddy.
I moved to Balham, made new friends; the fun really started. Spending £100 on an evening out became commonplace; cocktails and prosecco were the only acceptable beverage, a new outfit was needed at least once a week and Sundays were for staying in bed until 3pm. I went to Notting Hill Carnival, a drum & bass festival, a polo match; spent all summer on Clapham Common in my bikini, nights out in Chelsea talking to boys and staying out late. Hazy, selfish days without a care in the world.
Mum became ill; I fell out of love with London. I was studying after work, trying to maintain friendships and rushing home every weekend as my world crashed around me. Constantly dragging myself from station to station, lugging a laptop and a bag full of revision notes, London was an inconvenience: a place to travel to and from in tears; a barrier between me and the arms of my mother. I sometimes wish I’d moved back home, but I somehow held onto some semblance of a normal life for the periods when I was in London. My friends kept me sane, gave me a sense of normality (sometimes infuriatingly so). I didn’t allow myself any time alone, cramming in a different friend every night of the week if I could; arriving back at Marylebone on a Sunday evening and heading straight out to dinner or drinks.
It took a long time to get the love back again. Even now, almost two years after Mum was taken from this world, I think I’m only just there. It’s so easy to feel homeless when you don’t spend all your time in one place; I was trapped in a strange purgatory between my self-sufficient adult life and my childhood home. I had friends in London but they’d moved on without me, shared experiences that I hadn’t been part of. I had my family at home, and so desperately wanted to be there to look after my Dad, but had no other parts of my life there. It just took time.
London can be the loneliest place on earth if you let it; people are rude and pushy and don’t have any time, but it’s also the most vibrant; the must full of opportunity and change and excitement. My friends got me through it; some of them had indeed moved on forever, but the beauty of London’s transient nature is that there are always potential new friends around the corner too. I’m so lucky to have such a strong group of girlfriends (new member applications always welcome!).
Sadiq Khan coined the phrase ‘London is open’, and this perfectly sums up what it is to live there. There’s a place in London for everyone (I won’t make a joke about house prices here), and as last month’s horrifying attack in Westminster showed, Londoners are fiercely proud of their city. We love all that it represents and all that it offers; we love the buzz and the culture; we love the food and the landmarks; we love the fact that anyone can make it their home.
Although I don’t think I’ll be here forever, and despite the fact the city has made me an absolute snob when it comes to eating out and waiting for public transport, I’m so grateful to have had the chance to live in London. I’m so lucky to have so much on my doorstep, to live in a place that people travel from across the world to visit, to have so much entertainment and culture and good old fashioned fun on offer. (Now remember this next time you’re staying in on a Saturday night watching Netflix, Clare!)