I wonder whether something strange has happened to me, some weird and unexpected rearrangement of the internal gearing. Like waking up one day and realising that you are no longer in love, or no longer so painfully in love.
It happened only the other day. One of my readers made contact and started sending me links to places for rent. This is incredibly thoughtful and makes tears spring to the eye. Included in his recommendations were flats in London that were, astonishingly, within my budget.
I had to take a step back, so to speak, after seeing these. Doubtless there was something deeply wrong about them, something the letting agents had decided to leave off the specifications. The neighbours were chainsaw testers. There were crocodiles in the toilet. There was no roof. There was no floor (“Oh, after a while you don’t even notice it”). But let’s say none of these scenarios were the case, and that what you saw was more or less what you got, or would reasonably expect. I found myself recoiling instinctively from these places – because they were in London.
What was that about? I suppose I didn’t fancy two or three of them because they were too near the blast radius of my mother’s home. Don’t get me wrong: I love my mother very much, but she is – how best to put this? – an extraordinary woman. And having an extraordinary woman as a mother is somewhat exhausting. I saw her the other week, with the children: I thought it would be nice to cook a pretend Sunday lunch (that is, a Sunday lunch that happened to take place on a Thursday) and maybe play cricket in the garden with the kids, and then play cards, as is traditional.
And it was nice (even if the cricket was rained off), and at one point when I was cooking, my mother asked for a roll-up, which my daughter made for her (moistening the gum on the Rizla with tap water, to be on the safe side). While I made lunch my mother, who officially became a pensioner while Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, puffed away in the kitchen. (Funny how after a certain age everyone thinks it’s absolutely hilarious, and in some way even commendable, that you smoke; but do it in public when you’re in your school uniform and everyone gives you filthy looks, even when you’re not smoking illegally. Ho hum.)
Anyway, my point is that once you get to Archway, two stops on the Tube from East Finchley, London gets a little too hot for me, and the irradiated zone spreads north and east and west. There’s a roughly pear-shaped blob on the map, incorporating Crouch End, Muswell Hill and other nearby parts of town that, as a child, I found immensely depressing and devoid of absolutely anything at all that made a city attractive or worth living in (even the pubs were dismal, and Lord knows I love a pub), and the idea of living there makes me think of death as a release.
But my kind reader also sent me a link to a place in Chiswick, miles away from East Finchley – and I still recoiled. Not as instantly or viscerally; but I still turned my head. What is this? I thought. Do I actually, and actively, not want to live in London any more?
This, for the born and bred Londoner such as myself, is a big deal. Apart from brief, traumatised episodes in Neasden, Shepherd’s Bush and Olympia, I have not lived in London since 31 August 2017. And when I lived in London the idea of living anywhere else struck me as absurd; a mad and lamentable experiment, as Santayana said of a life lived without happiness. In the days when I visited my in-laws, when we reached a certain point past the North Circular I would start saying “Why? Why?” to myself. By the time we got to St Albans, I’d be saying it aloud. Actually, these days, I can kind of see the point of St Albans, if I squint really hard; but I’ll never see the point of Harpenden.
And so it would seem that London has been leached out of my system. I loved living in Scotland: a year there surely helped. That it was also rural Scotland helped, too.
However, Brighton isn’t rural; and it isn’t London. I used to think it was the kind of place Londoners went when they couldn’t hack London any more; and maybe that’s the case with me. And to think I once held my children aloft on Parliament Hill and showed them the city teeming beneath them, and said: “That’s your city, and wherever you go, it always will be.”
Is it sour grapes? Or is it merely inertia, an unwillingness to move a few boxes of books and a suitcase any further than a mile down the road to Kemp Town? Who cares? I like it here.