“I love this city. Defiantly, pigheadedly, maybe even sometimes rudely”by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett / April 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
“I like London, for a day or two as long as I can leave again,” says the man at hotel breakfast, who has asked me where I live. He is from Worcester but I do not say anything about that. We are in rural Snowdonia, a place popular with tourists because of the beautiful scenery. And it is, indeed, beautiful, when the wet mist of rain clears long enough for you to see it.
It is where I grew up, mostly, and I left as soon as I was able to, bored and restless, desperate for the city. Perhaps that is why I love London so much; it is with the fierceness of the recently converted, like some are with Jeremy Corbyn, but in my case it is with a whole place. I am defensive of it, irritated by detractors. But then again my cousin has never lived anywhere else in his life and loves it passionately, too.
London gets a bad rap from the rest of the country. It is a parasite, sucking resources from the regions. A cesspit of knife crime and vegan wankers and Muslims (Londonistan, is the nickname given to the city by paranoid xenophobes who do not live here, who do not belong in this city not because of the colour of their skin, but because of the narrowness of their minds, and they feel it.) You can walk down the street and not hear a single word of English spoken, an ex-boyfriend’s mother complained to me when I was 17. And I just thought, “isn’t that incredible, I can’t wait to get there.” A global city, with a Mayor at the helm who refuses to buy into narratives of division, who told Europeans after Brexit, “you are all welcome here,” who launched a campaign, #LondonIsOpen, to tell the world so.
Why would you want to live in London? people from “home” ask me, and I wonder, why wouldn’t you?
There are plenty of reasons to moan, of course, and we’d be reading from the same hymn sheet: the high property prices, the extortionate rents, gentrification, pollution, M&M’s World. I know all this, but like millions of others I have chosen to be here. This choice makes us seem peculiar to strangers, but then Londoners never really care what strangers think, do they?
I come back to the city and I see several wonderful things, almost immediately. I visit the hospital in which I was born, where my friend is recovering from a difficult birth yards from where I also entered the world. The minute you walk in you move through myriad private stories, snippets of which float through the thin cubical curtains. Concerned, knackered men sit next to the tea machine. Newborns cry. The new mothers sleep. A nurse in a headscarf checks my friend’s blood pressure and tells her she is doing much better. On the way out, in the tube, an older Afro-Carribean woman finds herself stuck at the top of the escalator. A cheerful TfL woman in a fleece jumps on first, moonwalking backwards, her arm outstretched. The women clutch each other, smiling.
At Camden town I exit and make my way through throngs of Spanish and Italian teenagers (has there been a mass ad campaign for Camden over there?), wondering what happened to all the goths. Two drag queens stroll down the high street grinning. I walk past the Black Cap pub, now boarded up, and reflect on a bizarre date I went on there with a beautiful guy who, I’m pretty sure, was rather more interested in his own gender than mine. We drank frozen margaritas and watched a cabaret singer in false eyelashes and a sequined dress sing Is That All There Is? and I loved it. The pub closed in 2015 and that stage will not no doubt be encased in cobwebs, another vital community hub removed.
Except when I get home and google it I see that a group of LGBT campaigners and ex-locals calling themselves the Black Cap Foundation have been holding monthly vigils outside, performing the cabaret they can no longer take to the stage on the pavement instead. After months of wrangling, the owner of the building has finally agreed to transform the building into an “LGBTQ+ venue with cabaret performance at its heart.”
That is London. The moment you feel it’s all going to pot, its soul announces itself, screaming. In a wig. It’s a moodswing of a city; easy to feel gloomy about the gross disparity of wealth when you walk past a tent pitched outside Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road, inches from a bed that costs £3,000; when you see the Rollses and the Bentleys glide through Mayfair, their windows looking as black and empty as those of the properties lining the streets. But then you see a homeless guy outside the tube on Cally Road and next to him is a line of coffees—at least ten of them, it seems—and you think that even though it’s a harsh place, a ruthless place, that people are kind. I never understood where Londoners got the reputation for being unfriendly. I feel as though everywhere I go I am interacting with people, smiling, having a chat, sharing a laugh.
On Friday we go to our local, already wine-tipsy from a lunch that never ended. A man in high vis is trying to have a quiet pint while teenagers do shots around him, bellowing to Come on Eileen. We roll our eyes at the little hipster boys who take to the karaoke to sing Panic by the Smiths. The DJ looks perturbed and says he won’t be hanging anywhere, thanks. And then a young guy takes to the microphone, sings Killing Me Softly and blows them all out of the water. The whole pub is singing and my jaw has dropped at his voice. Next on, a mum three sheets to the wind doing These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ but she’s singing it only for her husband who is grinning, abashed in the audience.
Chatting to a lad at the bar, he asks me if I’m local, the same way anyone in Wales would. Just because we’re in the biggest city in Europe doesn’t mean there isn’t a community. These communities are under attack, and we must do our best to save them, but many outside the capital don’t seem to know they exist. Maybe these London detractors came into town only once, got barged at Euston by a commuter, went to Leicester Square and had dinner in a steakhouse, saw Wicked, paid £6 for a pint and left shaking their heads.
On Wednesday, the sun comes out, and the whole city changes, loosens its collar (or in the case of one optimist, takes its whole shirt off), turns up the reggae—which seems to be playing everywhere, from cars and bars and bedroom windows—and cracks open a can. London in the summer is one of my favourite places to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t say no to a trip to the Med, but there’s something about a crowd of people who you’d never ordinarily put together drinking rosé on a hot pavement to a soundtrack of soul and sirens that really gets me. Same as the cheery optimism of all the swimmers at the women’s bathing pond yesterday, lured by the hot weather, unprepared for the icy water when they get in. I’ve never heard the word “fuck” uttered in so many languages.
I love this city. Defiantly, pigheadedly, maybe even sometimes rudely. And every time I venture out and someone makes another tedious comment about it, I love it even more. The novel I have written, The Tyranny of Lost Things, has a number of themes: trauma, motherhood, hippies, drugs. But mostly it is a love letter to London. I wanted to chronicle a part of the city at a certain moment in time, because who knows how long it will last. It’s already a different place in the years since I wrote it. It’s changing all the time, in ways both good and bad. And I’ll happily chat to you about why, just don’t insult my intelligence by assuming my decision to live here is a foolish mistake. To you, London is a concept. But to millions of us, it is home.
The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett will be published in June