Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Bittersweet Beginning

1. Crossroads

When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to be a novelist. At university I started a novel, which apparently showed promise, but I could never bring myself to finish it, or even go so far as to identify an ending. In the end I submitted a half-finished rough draft of four chapters as a novella, and I got away with it. I was awarded my MA (with Merit - what does that even mean?) for writing a fairly liberally fictionalised account of how my parents met. The real version is good too, but at the time I wasn’t sure enough of my writing to give the truth a go.

I still write, but a terminal laziness and a busy day job keeps me from tackling that particular story. I have ideas that won’t go away, but won’t quite come closer to completion, either. I’ve only ever finished three short stories in the past three years. One was published in a friend’s magazine, but I think it might have been out of kindness. My poetry is for shit. I keep the flightiest of diaries, the kind that only flourish when I’m on holiday or have had my heart broken and I’m flailing around, flaccidly self-pitying. (See? I'd make a horrible poet.)

But there is one kind of thing I can write, with heady abandon. Maybe even two or three in an evening, if I’m feeling flowery and full of beans.


I'm really keen on these bite-sized snippets of information, and because I like reading them, I love writing them. It could be somewhere I’ve recently had a cupcake, downed a cocktail, watched the latest Woody Allen, or laid my head in a new city. I’ve reviewed all kinds of things. Every time a place has made an impression on me in the last year or so, good or bad, I’ve reviewed it on one of these two sites: or I’ve sadly abandoned the former of late in favour of its flashier counterpart, and because I was getting more feedback (i.e. readers) on TP.

As soon as I realised that people were reading my reviews - and that the time I put into ensuring that they were accurate, contained no spelling errors, and were informative and hopefully entertaining - was being appreciated, I began writing about everywhere I went, in earnest. And I still do.You can read them here.

I haven't even started on my love of cooking and good food shared with good people yet - one of life's greatest pleasures. That will take a few other posts to really do justice to. It's safe to say, I can eat. And I'll always happily sport the slightest of muffin-tops rather than leave the last forkful of something divinely tasty.


But possibly even more than food, I love London. I really enjoy living here. I didn’t want to come here at all; I was forced into moving here, my mother’s place of birth, when I was 10 years old. I guess we can go into that story in more detail some other time. But when we moved to the UK from the US, back in 1993, we didn’t really live in London. We came to reside in the town my mum had grown up in, to be near to her mum - in Orpington.

Orpington. Yes, you may have heard of it. It’s been immortalised as pretty much the most dangerously boring town in England in a TV advert for Honda.

See, Orpington is technically in London. It’s in zone 6. It has red London Transport signs on all the bus stops. It’s located within the London Borough of Bromley. Your oyster card will still (just about) function there. But it really isn’t London, in any humanly imaginable way. Many of the people there have lived there all their lives. (I think one of the Orpo-ites even proudly states as much in the comments on that YouTube clip.) It feels small, yet too large to navigate properly on foot, or on public transport. Have a look at the town Leisure Centre, and bear in mind that this is where people are expected to go to relax and have fun in their leisure time, and you have some idea of what I mean.

It has an unhealthy concentration of old people and Tory councillors and an unholy amount of foul-mouthed chavs. It’s really a horrible soul-sucking grey little cesspool, with a high street that looks like it threw up a bellyful of half-chewed, permanently damaged people onto the freshly laid carpet of a nightmarishly ugly 60s grey concrete shopping precinct. And precinct is the word. This place is an assault on the word precinct, which I’ve always thought is a horrible word associated with lawless expanses of dystopian metropolises.

Anyway. We can come back to Orpo later, but I think you get the point. It’s not at all like living in London, not even zone 3, which is where I currently live. No, no. My adolescence was spent yearning for things to do and the places to do them, which is why I went and did silly things like go and get inked at 16 down the local Orpington high street tattoo parlour, or lose my virginity to a hideously unsuitable older boy, who was mean and bad and –zut alors- had a flash car and a myriad of ugly-as-sin piercings, including a flesh tunnel that was a whopping 20mm wide open hole in his right earlobe, and smelled like the inside of your belly button if you’ve stuck your finger too far in.

No, Orpington’s not a pretty place, and this is truly reflected by its people. Don’t have a go at me – I did pretty well by Orpo boy standards to find him. Once again, I’m digressing.

The point is, I was bored. And so when, after university, and once I had a proper (ish) job, I could finally afford to move out from the confines of my mother’s charming, but nevertheless cooped-up cottage on the greener outskirts of Orpo, to the comparatively intoxicating melée of Balham (Gateway to the South), I leapt at the opportunity. From there I got out and I explored London.

I began with the central parts that I knew from temping in offices; making coffee, photocopying, and answering phones, zombie like, whilst I worked out in my head what my real job might be one day. Slowly I began to link streets together on my mental map of the city and began to see how it all fit together. I began to be able to walk more instead of taking the tube. I would ride always on the top decks of buses, piecing together the roads I knew with those I didn’t to improve my bearings.

I made sure I got out most nights, to do something, see someone, go somewhere. I was a Yes Woman. I turned no invite down, let no friend not include me in their plans. I saw countless unknown bands at the 12 Bar Club; I went to LSE lectures I knew nothing about; found arts and crafts make-and-do parties in Bethnal Green; went to the big galleries on late-night openings; saw young comedians in the basement of the Albany on Great Portland Street; joined Amnesty and went to their fundraiser club nights; and even joined a London social networking site and got steaming drunk with a room full of complete strangers.

I was hungry for the city, and the best part – London was hungry for me. ‘Where have you been?’, she seemed to say. London will keep taking from you if you let her – the temptress. She never tires of pocketing your money or enticing you with some new frippery – a new show in lights here; a trendy new fusion restaurant there; a life-changing exhibition; an irresistible patisserie; a Cuban bar; a Japanese boutique, a German cinema night – the possibilities, as they say, are seemingly endless.

This, I love. And when I'm feeling flush and full of life, it's a place that makes me feel blessed that I live here. But,like all London-dwellers, I've had my fair share of ups and downs here too. Certain places hold memories of breakups and breakdowns, and this city can be a lonely place. The same thing that appeals to me about London - the fact that you can be completely anonymous here - often also makes me a little sad.

Thanks to Natalie d'Arbeloff, the photographer of this picture, and to Dave and Dana at Postal Poetry, the fantasic site I found it on.

This blog will document my ups and downs in this dirty old town, in the form of quick capsule reviews of places I've been and things I've done. I'm hoping I can give you ideas on where to go and what to do in this fine city and am hoping you'll keep coming back for more. That's what London makes you do too. And I always will.

I'll start with a place that will remain important to me for many reasons. For that, dear reader, you'll have to make sure you return for the next post...