Monday, July 14, 2014

Thoughts From a Londoner Twice Removed

Last week, a good friend of mine (a Madrileño living in London for some years now) emailed and referred in to me, in a very kindly way, as an ex-Londoner. I surprised myself by how forcefully I wanted to dispute this, given that I can't see myself living in the UK again for any significant amount of time, and that I'm about to undertake another mammoth move even further away to the US, a whole timezone away from London's beat.  But something about being cut off from London frightened me, like I was going to be cast into social oblivion. London's ex, who didn't get to keep any of the mutual friends.

"I'll always be a Londoner, though, won't I?" came my needy cry.

In his best discursive Spanish style (I mean that in the nicest possible way) he asked me several questions back. "Let's see, what's a Londoner?" he wrote. "A fairly open and heterogenous state of mind? Caring about the best hamburger in town? Complaining about the Tube? Not being able to afford your first house? Having your mind as open as Cicciolina's legs?"

I had to google who Cicciolina was. I don't think my mind is that open.

Then I thought about all of the other questions. Here's what I came up with, after much pondering.

I think I'll always be a Londoner, because I'll always feel I have a claim of sorts on the city. I won't feel lost in the centre of it. I'll understand why people moan about the tube, or grumble that they can't afford houses. There will always be places with memories that I will gravitate towards; places I would either cross the street to seek out or to avoid. And there will always be a funny sort of pang of recognition in some key places where big things happened. I can't cross Waterloo bridge without feeling something profound. You can't spend your twenties somewhere and not feel that, I think.

On average I have returned to London once every three months this past year, and things have changed even in that short time - new skyscrapers, new restaurants, new overground stops, new cycle lanes. But the sense of homecoming, although it isn't home any longer, is still strong. It that because so much of my family is there, or because I can step easily from the Gatwick train, pull out my oyster card and know my whereabouts, or because I don't have to struggle with the language?

Or is it deeper and more self-absorbed than that? Is it because I see myself in others there, I know who my tribe are just by looking at their newspaper and I have memories and emotions deeply rooted in the familiarity of those train platforms, those journeys, in the increasingly green places I pass on the way to my mother's train stop in Chelsfield?

Marx wrote: Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive. 

I'd be interested to know what you think. Do places have a hold over us because we see ourselves in them? Because they contain our memories? Because of the people within them? And once we leave a place, do we still retain any claim on it, even if we do not return?

I don't have any hard answers. I was just enjoying the question. Cup of tea, anyone?