London: It's Not You, It's Me

by Eve Barlow

The most significant long-term affairs in my life have been with cities. Growing up, we are taught, through fairytales and romantic narratives, that life’s for sharing with someone else, but in 2017, society is in flux. For many, sharing can actually get in the way of life, particularly when you’re young and ravenous and living increasingly in the moment—when you want to kiss life on the lips at all times. These days, I inhale life deeply every day and in turn it takes my breath away. 

For nearly a decade, I’d been in a damaging, one-sided yet addictive relationship with London. Right now, London—the motherfucker—and I are spending some much needed time apart while I see Los Angeles. It’s been two and a half years since I arrived, and I’ve finally fallen in love. It’s not what I was expecting. Ever since I first clapped eyes on a Tube map, I thought London was The One. Maybe there’s no such thing. Maybe it was infatuation. Still, the expectation was that it was going to be me + London 4eva.

The plan to make it mine crystallised in Trafalgar Square—unaware that really London belongs to nobody. As a 16-year-old, however, plied with questions such as ‘where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’, I sat on the steps overlooking Nelson’s Column and thought, ‘here, obviously; this is the world’s epicentre’. A ridiculous thought today, given that only tourists and—I imagine—people who voted for Brexit hang out there. On that day, though, it was the place where I realised everything was possible. I had to make it in London. So I did. 

I arrived to the tune of Dog Days Are Over by Florence + The Machine: ‘Happiness hit her/Like a train on a track’. Willing to be gobbled up whole by the city, awestruck by its enormity. I loved being in an empty Tube carriage at night, knowing that if I wanted to, I could go absolutely anywhere. I could get sidetracked and no one else needed to know. Sometimes, it was a disaster. I got off at Old Street once to go clubbing in Hoxton Square and retreated straight back under ground. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole and landed amid a maze of urine-stained concrete. 

For seven years, I walked the dirty, rain-splattered streets. I didn’t so much pound pavements as skim them, trying to get ahead, further and faster than everyone else. I’d fix my gaze on the back of the heads in front of me and overtake. The way I sliced about the streets mirrored the way I stalked my career. The dogged pursuit of success went hand in hand with my place in the city. That kind of tunnel vision renders it almost impossible to attain the holy grail of work/relationship/home that we’ve been conditioned to aim for. But I charged at my career, on foot, hoping that the rest would materialise when least expected.

Walking to and from offices, gigs, meetings, interviews, nights out stoked my drive further. I’d get up at 6am so I could walk into work from NW3 through Camden Town, past Euston into the heart of Soho. Later, when I lived east and worked in Borough, I’d take a night stroll over Waterloo Bridge, dodging suits and the bustle of the City via Bank and Liverpool Street, back to my shoebox of a room on Commercial Street. On weekends, I’d ride behind my brother on his moped, speeding down Finchley Road, bumping over Hampstead’s cobblestones. When I close my eyes, I still see the West End’s hidden mews, the long trek between lines at London Bridge station, the entire route of the 48 bus. I’d roam all weekend. Regent’s Park was my favourite. All those footsteps, all that ground covered, made me feel I was going somewhere—masking the fact that I was really at a standstill.

In my last year in London, the walking became a crutch. My route home would take me past a pub on Bishopsgate, the place of a job offer I received over a glass of wine, the type of job I had come to London to land. I cried tears of relief. But in the back of my mind, something grated. The news was delivered nervously, via darting pupils. For the next two and a bit years, I saw those darting pupils every time I had a tough day at the office. There were quite a few of those.

During the days, I employed a stoicism that came at significant personal cost. It was isolating; I buried my head in my screen, screaming soundlessly. Not long after my aspirations had been realised, I discovered reality could bite, hard. In my solitary hole I clutched onto anything that felt like an ally. One such thing was a ballad by La Roux called Let Me Down Gently, with the lyric: ‘I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m young, foolish and green/Let me in for a minute, you’re not my life but I want you in it’. As the track builds, a dance beat kicks in. On repeat, it coerced me to keep fighting, but nothing could stop the rest unraveling.

It was a glorious summer night. I’d been at Hyde Park watching Arcade Fire from a VIP tower, the best seat in the house. Afterwards, approaching my front door, something felt off. The man I was sharing a home with—a bouncer in his late 30s—was a recovering narcotics addict. I found him on a flatshare website in a panic. My previous flat—a shared, converted warehouse space—was such a steal it had been bought outright by an American woman who had arrived at Heathrow with a briefcase full of cash and given our landlord an offer he couldn’t refuse. The sudden uprooting tore us apart, as we all floundered for solutions in a cripplingly competitive rental market.

The second my boxes landed on the floor of this other flat, I offered my strange new flatmate (who was already residing there) a coffee. He shook his head. ‘Coke habit,’ he said. ‘Kicking it, though.’ With what? I asked. ‘Ketamine.’ He had eight goldfish in a tank and they all looked perfectly healthy, so I wondered how bad this could get. That night, after Arcade Fire, I looked at the entrapped goldfish and felt like I’d wound up in there with them. I’d walked in to find a random street dealer invited up to the kitchen to Hoover lines of cocaine off the counter. There was no lock on my door; the landlord said it wasn’t required by law. When I complained that I felt uncomfortable, the landlord deferred to the estate agents, who refused to let me out of my contract. London had started to eat me alive.

Psychological stress manifested itself physically and I felt powerless. I’d lie on my side in bed, preparing for another terrible night’s sleep, and sense my hips jutting into the mattress. I’d completely lost my appetite. I could see it in the faces of colleagues, and of family. My best friend met me at a new coffee spot beneath my flat. She looked worried. I’m not the type of person people tend to worry about. The shame of having disappeared amid the increased strain still sits with me. I remember seeing the number 102 on the scales. I’d convinced myself I was still in control. 

‘Why don’t you come to LA?’ came a suggestion from friends living in a place that oozed salvation. Once the temptation lodged in my brain, I couldn’t shake it. I saw the writing on the wall on the underpass before Shoreditch High Street: a splash of pink graffiti that read QUIT YOUR JOB. I went to LA for a week to envisage what it would be like living there, cruising the freeways, going to houses in the Hills, laughing again. The sky in LA seemed so large, so pregnant with light. I wrote my resignation letter. I quit my lease. I purged my belongings. I packed one suitcase. A black cab picked me up outside my flat and took me to Gatwick. The second I stepped foot in LA I slowed down. Everyone congratulated me on the risk I’d taken, but I knew the risk would have been to stay in London.

Later, I realised that through all those years of walking the city, I was procrastinating. I took pointless detours, I deepened my loneliness, I ran from the idea that London wasn’t adding up for me. I was more disorientated at ‘home’, than I’ve become surrounded by an alien culture in a foreign land. Now, I lock the doors of the apartment I live in alone at night and never miss the city that once seemed to offer everything. Well, maybe; there’s the odd pang when I recall hazy barbecues in Victoria Park, but no—it’s not enough. Unlike everyone else who lives in LA, I take the ‘sidewalks’ and I don’t drive. There is nobody else on the streets here, no one to overtake, no heads to stare into the back of. And so I take my time. Here, it no longer feels like it’s slipping through my fingers.


Photograph by Eve Barlow

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