When I first moved back to London, after living in Oxford for several years, I thought I would never last there. The grey endlessness of it, the crowds of people not acknowledging one another’s existence, the traffic, the noise, the succession of streets and shops and suburbs, above all the fact that when you’re in London you can’t see the edges. It swallows you up, along with the eight million other people, it squashes and rattles you around in its trains and buses, it bewilders you with its complication.
The thing about London, as people have so often said, is that it isn’t so much a single city as a conglomeration of towns and villages, all different in population, culture, class, architecture and atmosphere. My first alighting point after Oxford was my parents’ home, in an obscure south London suburb full of 1930s houses (ours was mock-Tudor), not far from Croydon, a town in its own right and more or less on the edge of London. According to my mother our area had ‘gone down’ when Asians started moving in, but to me the place was still just as safely boring as it had always been, its high street a section of the Brighton Road that most people passed through on the way to somewhere else. The shops had become more run-down than I remembered them, but I doubt that had much to do with the Asians. The place still felt like a backwater, though. To be part of anything exciting that was happening in London you had to catch a train ‘up to town’ and then take a bus or the Tube. Which was exciting, at least when I was a child.
From there I moved to a shared flat in a road between Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park. The area couldn’t have been more different: smart, urban, with huge white-painted Victorian villas now divided into flats. It was on the edge of Hampstead, a bus ride away from the Heath or Regent’s Park and from Camden Town, which in those days hadn’t yet burgeoned into the current sprawl of markets. The centre of London was a Tube ride away. No, North London was definitely not boring. If I could have afforded a flat somewhere in the area I might well be there still.
When I came to buy my flat I had to go downmarket. The side of Cricklewood where I lived – supposedly the better side – was described by the estate agents as ‘West Hampstead borders’, West Hampstead already being less desirable than Hampstead, though chichi and expensive enough in its own right. Over the years it has become more so, while Cricklewood… What can I say? Cricklewood, home of the Goodies and Alan Coren, almost as much of a joke place as Neasden, was always supposed to be up-and-coming but has never up-and-come. The road I lived in was pleasant enough, apart from the trains at the bottom of the garden – large redbrick Victorian houses, cherry trees along the pavement, plenty of space – but the Broadway is another of those London villages that people are always passing through en route – in this case to the M1 and the North Circular Road and Brent Cross shopping centre.
In its favour, Cricklewood is enormously cosmopolitan. At one stage cadets from Hendon Police College used to be sent there to note, and presumably marvel at, the number of different nationalities represented in the shops. In my time – I was there for twenty-four years – there were Ethiopians, West Africans, Sri Lankans, Armenian Cypriots, Brazilians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Afghans – and that’s by no means an exhaustive list. Later came the Eastern Europeans, and for a short time (a very short time) there was even a Mongolian shop called Blue Sky. When I first lived there we had a Kosher delicatessen, a relic of the area’s Jewish days, run latterly by a Mr and Mrs Patel. It soon went, as the Jewish population died or moved away. The Irish, the other long-standing occupants, are still a presence – I believe The Crown Hotel used to be an IRA pub – and not long before I left people from an Arabic-speaking country (I’m afraid I don’t know which) had opened a shisha cafe which wafted scented smoke round the corner towards my flat. And, unforgettably, we had M F Car Parts, the large M and F overlaid on the rest of the sign so that it read ‘M Farts’.
You may well ask why, with all that cultural richness, I should have wanted to leave Cricklewood. The answer is that part of me never really wanted to be there. Like a lot of Londoners, I had ended up in my particular bit of London for reasons of convenience and economic constraint. The Broadway is not only cosmopolitan but noisy, dingy and not somewhere you would want to linger; I never wholly got used to the trains whooshing so close to my back window; and although I loved my little converted maisonette and patio garden, it was small. And it was still entangled in London. Going to Devon regularly for training courses in the early 1990s revived all my Oxford longing to be within reach of the countryside. Later courses in Bath made me yearn for beautiful buildings – though of course there are plenty of those in London. Gradually, with many setbacks and hesitations, I got my maisonette ready to sell and eventually found a buyer. I knew I wanted to move but I couldn’t decide where to go. So, in September 2008, I moved temporarily to another area of London, renting a bedsitter and putting all my things in storage.
I didn’t move far. From scruffy Cricklewood to affluent Golders Green is probably no more than a couple of miles, but you could be in a different town. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews make up a large part of the population, there are Arabs and Turks and the ubiquitous Poles, and there is a strong Japanese community. There is also a Gujarati Hindu temple, which always invites a band of Scots Guards to play for its ceremonial occasions. For the eight days of Chanukah the bus station sports an enormous menorah (Chanukah candlestick), while earnest young Lubavitchers (members of a Hasidic sect) accost passers-by who they think might be Jewish and present them with a mini Menorah kit. I still have mine somewhere. The house where I was living was beautiful and spacious – mock-Tudor, but far grander than my parents’ house – the people who owned it were kind and cultured – Christian, surprisingly, and not Jewish – I was not far away from Golders Hill Park and the delightful Hill Garden, but I was in a main road with buses constantly passing the window on their way to yet more shops and more suburbs.
After much indecision and continual house-hunting I finally settled on my present house. I don’t know how many I looked at altogether, but it was an awful lot. I didn’t want to live in a city, I decided, but somewhere small and with a view. So here I am in a little town on the edge of Dartmoor that has nice shops and cafes – with a good helping of tourist tweeness – spectacular views and lovely people. There is art and music and poetry going on nearby, and there are people I know. My house is at least twice the size of the Cricklewood maisonette and cost a good bit less, and I have plenty of garden. I can drive up to the moor in ten minutes and to the coast in half an hour. I get some noise from the A38 when the wind is in certain directions, but I also hear sheep and cattle and a local cockerel. In a lot of ways it couldn’t be better, but I’m surprised sometimes at the way the Londoner in me has secretly been longing for what I never thought I’d miss. I do miss London’s cultural mix and I certainly miss frequent, day and night public transport, but I thought I could live without heavy traffic and Sainsbury’s superstores. Nevertheless, when I went into Newton Abbot the other day I caught myself enjoying the fact that there were plenty of cars on the road. Arrived at Sainsbury’s, I looked around and felt at home. And there were streets of terraced houses that were familiarly, reassuringly suburban.
I’ve come to the conclusion that being a Londoner is something that, like being Jewish, remains in your blood even when you think you have left it behind. I’m glad to be settled now in Devon, rather than constantly to-ing and fro-ing, but perhaps I still need my fix of London from time to time. Not just the art exhibitions, the plays and concerts – most of which I never had the time or the money to go to – not just my friends, who I hope will come and see me down here, but the place itself, the parts of the city that are glorious and interesting and full of history. Waterloo Bridge and the view across the river, the streets and buildings of Bloomsbury, the big parks, Hampstead Heath. Yes, I was tired of living in London and needed to be in the countryside, but I’m by no means in the tired of life category – or at least not yet.