I used to be unable to imagine life outside zone two. But coronavirus has silenced London’s siren song

I consume as much of the city as I can, until I don’t know who I am without it. 

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He didn’t even give me 24 hours. Within minutes of landing in Belfast, as I strained to decipher his parents’ accents from the backseat of the car (it always takes my ears a while to attune, as it does during the first act of a Shakespeare play), my boyfriend was looking at me pointedly. See, his eyes seemed to say, isn’t it lovely here. As we watched huge waves crash over Ballintoy Harbour, part of the obligatory Game of Thrones tour; see, isn’t it beautiful. As the pet donkeys nudged at me for another slice of bread; see, don’t you want to move here?

The first two, I could concede. But the last – no matter how I turned that particular puzzle piece, I couldn’t make it fit. You see, I’m a Londoner – ish. I was born in zone six, in Kingston upon Thames, a suburb that was reclassified as a borough of Greater London in 1965. I armed myself with this fact early in my teenage years, to defend against the inevitable “but isn’t that in Surrey?” question.

I’m an all-or-nothing sort of person, and the suburbs felt oppressively middling: all flying ants, and counting the ceiling tiles during school assemblies, and treeless roads named after trees. It was supposed to be the best of both worlds but in reality seemed to offer very little good of either.

Morrissey once said his teenage years felt like “waiting for a bus that never came”; in fact, the buses did come, and for the high price of 40p the 371 would whisk you away to meet your friends and trawl around Superdrug on a Saturday afternoon. It was the trains that were the problem. I longed for the day when my life wasn’t ruled by the iron fist of the South West Trains timetable. “Well-connected” is estate agent language for “always late”. 

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I did know that I wanted to be it in zone two. I wanted to go out for dinner somewhere other than the Pizza Express above the bowling alley. I wanted to wander among blue-plaque houses (the best Kingston had to offer was that Jacqueline Wilson went to my secondary school, and the novelty of that wore off somewhere around week three of Year 7). I wanted to, on a whim, go to a gig, a gallery, walk the treasure-lined floors of Liberty, and to be there within half an hour. In the suburbs, my life was small; in London – real London, not was-Surrey-not-all-that-long-ago London – it would be big.

Now, I live on the Victoria Line, and the trains come every 100 seconds. It is bliss; sweaty, crowded, always-standing bliss. I have, I’ll admit, looked down at friends who live scattered around the towns and smaller cities of the UK and wondered what they did all day, how they filled their evenings and weekends before 9am rolled around again; as though who you are and what you do are the same question. In the country, I imagined, I would have to do different things – tend a garden, make chutney, and, apparently, have pet donkeys – and therefore would be a different person, a stranger to myself.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised the arrogance of thinking that my life would ever be anything other than ordinary, and the illogic of imagining that as one of London’s nine million residents, I could somehow not be small. But realising and accepting are not the same thing. My life is one long, frenetic movement: eating, drinking, spending. I consume as much of the city as I can, until I don’t know who I am without it. 

But coronavirus has silenced much of London’s siren song: the pace, the possibilities, the refusal to tolerate boredom. Where once I was out every waking hour, burning out and carrying on, not knowing how to sit still, now I do very little. I work, I read, I watch TV; I cook, I walk, I sew. I lead the kind of small, quiet life the fear of which once drove me into ceaseless action. And – and I realise how privileged I am to be able to say this – I am still happy. Lockdown has taught me something simple but profound: that maybe small and ordinary isn’t so bad; that I can do nothing, and still be me. 

See, my boyfriend’s eyes implore, isn’t this enough? And just think of the house we could afford in Northern Ireland… 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe

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