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?


  1. Interesting topic!
    I think the need of belonging is at the heart of it. And for that matter, the fear of not belonging too.

    Like your friend, I’m a madrileño Londoner. As you spent your twenties in London, I spent mine in Madrid –well most of my life until then. Now, twelve years later, there’s not that much that I could honestly use to claim 'I’m a madrileño and will always be'. If I do, it'd be a daydream or a very partial truth otherwise: Madrid has changed, my family has changed, my friends have changed and I have changed –attitudes, beliefs, tastes, patterns, body cells…, all of it has changed and we have all become new to each other to a certain extent. Of course, the memories remain, but are not memories continuously rewritten and not too separate from daydreams and fiction anyway?

    But not that I’m sore about this at all. It’s all probably quite healthy that things are this way.

    As I see it, places, or let’s say identities attached to places in this case – a Londoner, a madrileño, a Catalonian, an American…, you name it – and the sense of belonging they provide offer us some comfort probably in a similar way that believing in God does; we can all get a bit too lonely and a bit too whacky and confused otherwise (who am I? where do I come from? That stuff). So I think it’s all much about believing after all, and believing that it’s better the way of the believers.

    For my part I just take comfort in having enjoyed the ride and feel very grateful for it.

    So I guess I'm not much of a believer, unless we're talking swordfish (!

  2. Well, that's quite the funky little tune there, Edo! Now I believe in Swordfish too.

    Thanks for your thoughts - always very interesting to have a perspective from another self-exiler. I definitely agree with you about the continual changing nature of humans and our lives. I wonder then, if the sense of belonging you mention is not just constructed from memories but also from feelings that help us create a sense of ourselves. We are all continually changing and adapting to our surroundings, but if our feelings matched the rapidity of those changes, I think we'd be left whirling; feeling stateless, placeless, identity-less. So yes, maybe we construct a version of ourselves via the places we love, taking comfort from the things we find familiar as a way of coping with an otherwise rapidly changing existence.

    I remember flying over to England with my mum when I was a child and we lived in the US. When we were coming in to land, she would become noticeably moved by the sight of her 'green and pleasant' land. It was always home to her, even after living in Florida for more than 15 years. I'm not sure London gives me that kind of homecoming feeling. Does Spain for you?