London, I’m learning, isn’t any one thing. Other cities I’ve lived in have been mostly one thing. Berlin: dark artsy Neverland. Sheffield: grungy student paradise. Melbourne: affluent hipster metropolis.
London? Well, all of the above, plus a hundred more things. London isn’t for the hipsters, or the students, or the families, or lost people or home birds: it’s for everybody at once, and I think part of the reason it can feel so isolating to live here is that all of these very different types of person live above and below one another, crush onto the Tube together, escape to the same commons and parks.
You’re constantly around people, but there’s no way of knowing if the people surrounding you are your people, or the sort of people you actively avoid. I’ve wandered into more than a couple of house parties here and tried to speak to people the way I used to speak to people in Berlin and on the blueberry farm; that is, with my heart.
“So,” a girl said to me a few weeks ago, joining me on a balcony for a cig, “how’re you finding London?”
I pondered this a moment, then shrugged.
“I dunno really. It’s quite lonely here, isn’t it? I’ve found it difficult to meet people.”
I don’t know what I was expecting – a hug? A sympathetic pat on the back? ‘I know how you feel?’ Silly me.
“Oh. Yeah. Can be,” was her response.
Naturally I felt obliged to lighten the tone; to put her at ease with lies.
“Oh, I mean it’s not all bad! I’ve met some lovely people. I’m just finding my feet, you know? Takes time, haha!”
“Yeah. You’ll be fine,” she said, finishing her cigarette and heading inside.
The sudden silence brought with it an unexpected pang of loneliness. I briefly considered howling at the moon, but it was a cloudy night and I couldn’t be sure where exactly the moon was, and anyway I thought the crowd inside dancing to Temperature by Sean Paul might find it off-putting.
On my dourest days I’ve soothed my gloomy soul by assuring myself that, in a city of 9 million, there must be thousands of people who’d want my company; people I’d feel inspired by, people I’d be able to talk to without hacking off the less immediately palatable limbs of my personality. Because if you do that enough times, for enough people, what do you have left?
I recently followed the Reddit page r/London, and regularly I see posts in there from people newly moved to the city: people struggling, questioning their decisions, asking if it gets better. Invariably there are dozens of comments assuring them that London is wonderful. It’s a place of miracles! Impossible to grow tired of! Continually invigorating!
And all the while I’ve been unable to stop myself from wondering: what London have you been living in?
But therein lies the answer to my problem. There are many, many, many Londons. It isn’t a simple matter of arriving and stepping outside and making friends, as it was in Berlin. On first arrival, London is nothing but strange disjointed pieces and empty space. But there are currents that run through this city – millions of them. To make a home here, I believe you need to seek out those currents, and combine them and link them and shape them into a dazzling and colourful circuit board. You need to build your own London.
That’s where I’m at now, and that’s why, the last week or two, the sun’s shone a little brighter. I’m building my own world.
Once a week, on a Wednesday, I attend a writer’s meet-up in Peckham. I’ve been to four now, and each time I get a little more comfortable, meet a few new people, remember a few more names. It’s a delight: we meet at 6pm in the Peckham Pelican, a trendy art-café filled with interesting ales and people in corduroy dungarees. And we saw hello to one another – there’s usually around ten of us – then settle down for an hour of silent writing. Some use a pen and pad, others use laptops.
Then, after one hour, we exhale, crack knuckles, buy pints, and sit around to discuss what we’ve been working on. There’s always a couple of new faces, but I’ve grown familiar with the work of the people who attend every week. There’s Sam, the organiser, who’s working on a novel she is a little unsure of for the time being, but describes as ‘a bit Midsummer Night’s Dream-y, magical realism, that sort of thing’. Then there’s Laura, whose friends call her ‘Mess’, who writes a stream of consciousness diary. There’s Sam’s sister, whose I named I missed twice and am now afraid to ask ever again, who is editing her mother’s memoires. And Joe writes science fiction poetry, Shannon is plotting a novel, and Jack is working on a couple of dystopian short stories and every week grows frustrated as his storytelling ambition soars beyond his word count.
I’ve met people who write for the BBC, people pitching shows to Netflix, people penning essays for university, and people simply enjoying the process of conjuring up new characters and hurling them into perilous situations.
And it’s fucking breathtaking to sit there and listen to it all. Witnessing people – Londoners!!!! – sit around and listen, wide-eyed, as each in turn describes their latest work, is a feeling so pure and fulfilling it’s difficult to put into words.
The first time we met up, I’ll admit it was a little stilted and awkward. However, on Wednesday just gone, I was welcomed with a friendly “Hi mate!” from Sam when I entered, and people remembered my name. Even better, they remembered the plot of the book I’m working on, and were genuinely fascinated to know what happens next. It’s a trek to Peckham from Streatham Hill, but every time, when it comes to the bus back home, I find myself sat in a happy little haze.
The next step in my world-building is potentially even more exciting: last night I applied to join the Director’s Cut Theatre. It’s a creative school for directors, producers, actors and writers. I’ve submitted an application to join their writing progamme: it’s £120 per term, and once a week you have classes led by people established in the theatre. It’s a chance to meet creative new people, to improve my writing, and maybe even to open up some exciting new career doors. I’ve always thought it’d be brilliant fun to find a writing partner. Fingers cross they accept me, because I really believe it could lead to wondrous things.
It’s taken a hell of a lot of work and more grit than I ever thought I had in me, but between the theatre, the writer’s meet-up, the gym, the piano lessons, the new job, and the existing friendships I have here, I’m slowly forging a dreamy little city that is all my own. I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished.