The sun doesn’t always shine in London, but when it does the city seems to glow. The air feels fresher, full of energy. Troubles evaporate. What was toxic becomes intoxicating.
When the sun is shining London feels like the greatest city in the world.
When I left in 2011, I’d been toiling here for three years under the grey skies of recession. My entry-level journalist salary wasn’t enough to cover my monthly bills, and it was supplemented with credit card debt and pleading phone calls to parents who wondered when they’d get to spend their retirement money on themselves. I was living in the top drawer in a six-person share house, a room unfit to house a prisoner.
I didn’t hate London. Not by any measure. I might not have been well compensated at my job, but I got to go to film premieres and festivals. I sang in a band, acting out dreams of grunge stardom in front of a dozen or so friends and colleagues 20 years too late and 5,000 miles too far east of Seattle.
I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. When I started a relationship with an Australian in 2010, the decision to move made itself and I left in June 2011.
The American poet Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” During my gap year and university, my travels were always punctuated by reluctant return trips to Heathrow under a cloud of necessity. I had to come back. Britain had to have me.
After leaving university at 22, I’d done my best not to return at all, taking extended trips to the U.S., and, when I’d exhausted both money and visas, I booked a ticket to Sydney rather than London. My first stint in Australia lasted two years. When I finally returned home, at 25, I didn’t want to be here, but I’d run out of places to hide.
I have always loved being British, and the privileges that come with it. I love our history, our culture, our perspective. I love our sense of humour. There is nothing quite like the pride of having a stranger in a foreign city greet you with a grin and profess their love for British comedy.
This is my home, but I never felt at home here. There was always somewhere else to be. Somewhere new to explore, something new to find. The thrilling anonymity of Manhattan, the endless suburbs of Greater Los Angeles, the carnival sideshows of Venice Beach and Las Vegas, the tabloid weirdness of Florida.
I’ve never experienced home sickness, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had wanderlust either. My travels were born from a desire to belong somewhere. A homelust perhaps.
When you feel out of place everywhere, home is a difficult thing to find.
I came home again in February this year. I hadn’t intended to return. I suppose most who emigrate don’t, but plans in my experience are things you have until the next plan comes along. My relationship ended, my fractious affair with life in Australia finally became untenable, and I knew where I had to be.
My second stint in Australia lasted almost three years. But unlike in my early twenties, this time the return was accompanied with no reluctance. At 30, I felt like I was coming home for the first time.
In his essay for the London Review of Books, “On Not Going Home”, the writer and critic James Wood, a professor at Harvard and a British expatriate of 18 years, wrote of visiting Britain:
“There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.”
On arrival, I rented a room in Camden for a couple of nights, and feeling jet-lagged and foreign, I took to the streets in the early light of day in search of coffee.
As I walked the streets of Camden, treading lightly in three-year-old footsteps, the suit, at first cumbersome, started to sit just right. Small pinches and wrinkles fell to the back of my mind, the pleasure of being wrapped in the familiar surpassing the anxiety of insomnia and absence.
If you haven’t experienced London at first light, you must. Even if it’s just an interval between bouts of sleep, witnessing the majesty of the city at dawn will convert even the most hardy detractor.
What can be difficult to notice in daylight hours, when hundreds upon thousands of others are clamouring and cajoling and carving out their own piece of pavement or fighting for elbow room on the tube, is the comforting feeling of life happening.
In the quiet and relative solitude of that morning in Camden, small details echoed loudly. The dustman sweeping the gutter, the market stall owners setting up shop, the bus taking the tired to their early shifts.
I got the first coffee of the day after waiting for the barista to open the doors, and sitting at a window seat, witnessed the few at the end of their night stumbling home with yesterday’s clothes and tomorrow’s hangover.
The Irish novelist George Augustus Moore wrote “a man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it”.
Even as the sky began to spit and the coffee burned my tongue, the invigorating feeling of being back in this city had settled in me. I knew I was home.
This isn’t the same city I left in 2011. It was stilted then, stagnant and sterile. Building sites were abandoned, jobs were scarce. It isn’t perfect now, but things have improved. The city feels fresh again. Hopeful.
I’m not certain how much of this is perspective, whether simply seeing the city with fresh eyes has lent it an optimism that’s difficult to sustain, or whether the city is truly brighter.
In his poem “London”, William Blake wrote:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
When I first lived here I stumbled under the weight of those same manacles. I let the woe lie heavy. I saw the same burden on the faces around me. I saw only weakness, only rot.
My walk to work takes me past Blake’s grave, at Bunhill Fields. Both graveyard and garden, the weathered headstones play host to thriving flora and fauna, grand oak trees and long grass and squirrels and a dozen species of bird.
A pocket of old London, untouched by the development rampant in the rest of the square mile. A place of death, a place of life. A microcosm of the city. The hurried bankers shuffling through at pace, lest death be contagious. The children racing past on push scooters, beleaguered parents in tow, making their way to the school on the other side of the square.
The old man sitting quietly, reflecting, easing the pressure on tired joints. The couple arm in arm, unselfconsciously in love. The woman feeding the pigeons. The photographers waiting patiently to catch the light breaking through the trees and over the headstones.
The walk through the square is no more than a minute or two, but the effect is lasting. For a couple of minutes each day, at least, there are no manacles. There is no woe.
It isn’t practical for everyone to leave for a while. But it is possible to take a moment, to stop. To find the stillness and quiet beneath the chaos. To notice the small things.
This isn’t the same city I left in 2011. I refuse to let it be.
I’ve struggled for a long time to find somewhere I fit in. To find home. I didn’t find it during those years trekking around the U.S., and I certainly didn’t find it in Australia.
Though I made some good friends in Sydney, and gained invaluable experience, I never settled. In many ways I’ve never felt more out of place, like the only introvert in the village (only the village was the size of a continent).
My Australian friends are given to insulting British weather, as if weather alone is the measure of a home. They can keep the weather. After three years there I was happy to trade it for culture, for history, for family.
So I’m back in London. A city of 8 million people, clamouring, cajoling, existing. I wonder how many came here as I did, exiles and émigrés. How many reluctant repatriates. How many reinvigorated by absence. How many finally feel they belong.
Perhaps home isn’t the place you fit in entirely. Perhaps home isn’t even the place you fit in most.
Perhaps home is the place you allow yourself to fit.
The sun doesn’t always shine in London, but it’s shining today. The city is glowing, radiant, full of possibility.
When the sun is shining this is the greatest city in the world.
Whether the sun is shining or not, this is home.