Louis MacNeice was a fire watcher during the Second World War. He sat on top of buildings across central London and surveyed the landscape, waiting to report on blazes growing out of control. MacNeice smoked his pipe, watching the shimmering rooftops and the glare of the Blitzkrieg. My nan’s old estate lay to his east, my childhood home resided to his west.
My nan was raised in Fulham, but she used to tell people she was from Chelsea, the same way folks from Peckham sometimes say they are from East Dulwich. My nan admired the grander aspects of London—flash cars, fancy houses, bright-light boutiques—but she never experienced much of that world. She put on a posh accent, mimicking perfect pronunciation, but she would let her vocal mask slip during impulsive moments. Out would pour West End cockney. She sounded like Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, in a state of perpetual transition.
My nan gave birth to her first son during the Blitz, the throb of sirens ringing as she went into labor. It was long and painful, apparently. I imagine she was pretty cockney that night.
My nan was not my biological nan. She took over from her sister, who was unable to look after my mum for several reasons, including dependency issues following the suicide of the man she loved. The man stuck his head inside an oven and gassed himself. The man may or may not have been my mum’s biological dad. My mum never bothered finding out.
My nan and my mum lived on Goldsborough Housing Estate in Lambeth. My mum depicts life on the estate with the romance of the city’s great proletarian novel, Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me. It was a romp, apparently, complete with spivs and wideboys, cockneys and the shabby gentility.
Each morning my mum woke up to greet the coal man, whom she describes in the form of caricature: cheeky and cantankerous, reminiscent of Bert, the Match Man, in P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins. The coal man would walk into the flat, empty sacks into the burner, wink at my mum, and pinch her cheeks with sooty hands.
From her bedroom window, my mum would watch boys play football, pat tennis balls against brick walls, and indulge in acts of petty troublemaking. She would walk to school through alleyways in the early mornings wearing a gas mask to protect her little lungs from the smog. On weekends, she would stroll along the Thames to Southwark and stop by Borough Market to grab lunch before meeting my nan after work. My nan would take my mum home, cook tea, and sing songs she learnt during the war: “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” and “The Lambeth Walk.”
“The Lambeth Walk” comes from the 1937 West End musical Me and My Girl. The Londonistmagazine, usually an authority on such matters, describes the Lambeth Walk as an exaggerated swagger, accompanied by arm swinging and elements of slapstick. My nan’s performances always made my mum laugh.
The two of them lived on Goldsborough with a bloke my mum dubs the Old Man. It’s a name I often heard throughout my childhood, always amid whispers. Talk of the Old Man, it seemed, was not for the ears of children. He was, I later found out, a nasty piece of work: con-man, gambler, often drunk, sometimes violent. He would turn up pissed all hours of the night, my mum says. She would lie in the back room, pillows covering her ears, attempting to catch some sleep.
My nan decided to leave London, to move away from the city and the Old Man. My mum had no choice. They moved to Swansea, near the coalfields in South Wales, a town one local drunkard called Dylan Thomas described as the “Graveyard of Ambition.”
My nan and my mum left London from Paddington Station with one suitcase between them.
It was the much-vaunted era of prefabs, those sturdy properties built with purpose. My mum remembers the first days in Swansea, missing estate life and the open community Goldsborough provided. But she was chuffed at the prospect of having a garden. My mum remembers little else from those years, other than flowers.
The French philosopher Paul Ricœur suggests that identities can be understood in the telling and retelling of stories. There is no such thing, in the written or oral tradition, as total autobiography. All stories are selective, or at least exist in selective memory. It is through the selection of stories, however, that the recipient can best understand an individual’s identity.
My parents met in a beat-down student pub in Aberystwyth. They found immediate attraction and shared a great deal in common: both were poor among plenty of rich folks, both were socialists, both enjoyed reading, both drank too much.
They got married three years after the pub. They spent the night before the wedding, broke as old clocks, in a caravan necking tins of lager. Only one photo exists from the occasion, taken by the only friend who had a camera. The photo depicts my parents in hippie attire, smiling and laughing, paying no attention to the photographer.
Struggling students trying to avoid the dole, make some sort of living, and eventually start a family, my parents found work in Roget, near Newport. My dad cleaned hospital floors and my mum worked in the local shop. My mum says she was biding her time, always planning to move back to London.
They bought their first house in Roget for £9,000. It had damp ceilings, no furniture, barely a lick of paint, and an active bees’ nest somewhere in the haunts, but it had a front garden with salvageable flowers and beautiful bricks of industrial ilk.
There was little to do in Roget: no excitement, not much money. My parents wanted to put their degrees to use and that meant some form of office work. They discussed the next move. My dad thought about heading to North Wales, but my mum insisted on London.
My dad is the sort of bloke you have to get seriously drunk before he allows much emotion. One could describe him as masculine, but he would never accept the term. He is simply a slate country kid, his ethos and ethics built into the rural.
After my dad and I shared six beers, three rum and cokes, two bottles of wine, forty-odd fags, and a few whiskies, he admitted he was scared of the notion of moving to London. His interpretation stemmed from his favorite British writer: George Orwell. My dad saw the capital in the manner of Down and Out in Paris and London: a sprawling contradiction, full of rough and ragged types alongside the rich and arrogant. He felt London epitomized all that was wrong with British society: condensed wealth alongside mass poverty. My mum still won the argument.
London was, and is, a contradiction. As another working-class bloke from Wales, Raymond Williams, once wrote: “The city is a contradictory reality: of vice and protest, of crime and victimization, of despair and independence.”
My parents alighted the train at Paddington Station in 1975, under the high convex roof and Brunel’s Victorian architecture, with one disheveled suitcase each. My mum said my dad looked like a lost child, scared amid the crowds. My dad says he doesn’t remember arriving.
Psychologists, such as Hugo Münsterberg, suggest we should not trust the worth of memories indiscriminately, but we can understand ourselves through the choice of memories we discern as valuable, which inevitably shifts with time. Life writing is the manifestation of valuable memories, our own and those of other people. Autobiography, thus understood, is an artifact of our present understanding of the self, represented in the past.
My parents’ first London home was in Twickenham. They could afford property only on the outskirts of the city. The mortgage was £22,000. The same property today would likely cost nearly £1,000,000. The house was in a heaving street bursting with the aroma of overfilled garbage shoots. It had the general aesthetic of decay, but it was no worse than the houses in which my parents had grown up. My mum remembers rejoicing at the luxury of pre-existing furniture. My dad was surprised he could switch the lights on without fear of shock. The house was homey, my parents said, all things considered.
They found work in a brewery near Slough, an area John Betjeman once derided as unfit for humans. My mum says Slough looked then as Slough looks today: dull and dreary, lacking any sense of imagination. Slough has had an influx of commerce since then, which has not served to regenerate, only to homogenize. Dive bars have become Wetherspoons, losing even the charm of charmlessness, and family-run restaurants and boutiques have been bought out by chains and outlets such as Nando’s and Primark.
Brewery workers could drink free beer with lunchtime sandwiches. My mum, ever ambitious, insists she refrained from boozing, and my dad says he only had a couple of pints every lunch, every day, for five years.
My dad soon found his pessimistic interpretation of London wavering. It was still rough, he said, but it was exciting. More the first half of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Squarethan Orwell’s Down and Out. There were plenty of pubs, exhibitions with free wine, exciting restaurants, boats that swept down the Thames toward boozy weekends in Southend and Clacton—towns full of migrated cockneys. My parents visited nightclubs for the first time and made friends from backgrounds they had seldom encountered: folks from Ireland and Scotland and first- and second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean and India.
Friends from different backgrounds brought my parents to different forms of drinking: Caribbean dances, karaoke with Irish rovers, Indian weddings with dazzling dresses. I sometimes imagine my parents as background characters in scenes from literature. I picture my dad, the bearded Welshman, knocking about in the same places as certain characters brought to life in Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. I picture my mum, the liability drunkard, in the sort of boozers described in Martin Amis’s London Fields.
My parents were ambitious beyond drinking. In an age of seedy offices and open sexism, my mum climbed the brewery ranks faster than my dad—a point on which they both speak with pride. She stood her ground when men slapped her arse and diminished her intelligence and she contributed to arguments when she was expected to keep quiet. My mum soon had her own small team, some of whom, both male and female, were reluctant to serve under a woman.
With promotions came extra money and thus my parents were able to move closer to the city. They bought a terrace house in Ealing for £32,000. The price was low because the place was battered. My parents worked on the house during weekends, with bottles of wine and whisky in hand, using shoddy charity shop manuals to make the house livable. Drunk and dazed, my mum and dad painted the walls, rewired the house, fixed the plumbing, nicked furniture from local skips, and bought secondhand adornments to give the place flair.
After months of toil, which my parents describe as some of the happiest days of their lives, they had something that resembled a home. It was still shoddy, still rough, but a home.
It was happiness, at that point. Or something close. They worked hard, drank hard, went on cheap holidays to Wales, and visited the occasional up-market restaurant. They socialized in the evenings, frequenting pubs around West Ealing, Ladbroke Grove, and Westbourne Park. My parents entered their thirties, content.
My mum was on the pill. She left Catholicism for that pill, at least politically. She was lying in bed one day and noticed a pain in her stomach. The pain continued for a week. She went to the doctor, who had bad news. It was likely my mum wouldn’t be able to conceive. My mum was likely infertile. I don’t know precisely what was wrong, but my mum refers to it as “something to do with the fallopian tubes,” a phrase I always found strangely poetic.
My parents had wanted kids at some point in the near future. They spoke about the prospect of adoption. My mum was raised by one single non-biological parent, my nan, and thus understood biology was not a necessary ingredient of parenthood. But, my mum confesses, she was broken by the idea of being unable to conceive.
My mum continued to feel physical pain. The doctor ran further tests and, solemnly, he told her to come off the pill. She was not going to get pregnant, he said.
My mum became melancholic. She grew sicker. More symptoms arrived. She missed her period, the stomach pain grew unbearable, she threw up sporadically. The GP ran further tests, afraid my mum might have a serious illness. Two days later she was called back to the doctor. The GP looked confused.
My mum was pregnant.
My eldest brother was born roughly eight months later in Hammersmith Hospital. My other brother was born two years after that in Hammersmith Hospital. One year later, I arrived in Hammersmith Hospital, but I was sick.
In his essay, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali,” Orwell claims that autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something shameful. With that said, my sickness came from swallowing shit during birth. No one is quite sure who the shit belonged to—the only contestants, thankfully, were my mum and I—but the act of imbibing shit flooded my newborn body and I caught some sort of infection. There were moments when my parents were told I might die. They gave me an obscure Welsh name, perhaps because they thought I might die. They said they prayed a great deal. I was in the intensive care unit for a while, but suffered only minor and ephemeral physical setbacks.
I guess that story is not all that shameful. Survival is seldom shameful, even if you ate shit.
In The Autograph Man, my favorite London writer, Zadie Smith, claims: “To come in with a bump and leave with a baby—this is the only grace available in a hospital.”
I left Hammersmith Hospital in my mum’s arms, both my brothers intrigued by my tiny hands and massive head. We all went back to the terrace house with damp walls, which we still refer to as home.
London-born sociologist Anthony Giddens understood life stories as individual constructions, told with the purpose of self-identity, which always exists in relation to place. Memories are formed in specific places, with reference to specific places, and places are conceptualized through memory. And the identity of the individual, both in terms of self-definition and the perception of identity as understood by others, is inextricably linked to the idea of place.
My first conscious memories of London stem from my mum. She would read Paddington Bearto my brothers and me while we sat in bunk beds. She would, as her mum once did, sing “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner” while she cooked us tea. She would take us on day trips when we were kids to see museums and galleries, monuments and parks. I remember the obsession my brothers and I had with public transport. We loved the roar of the Underground, the decaying seats, the endless crowds. We appreciated the journey more than the destination, which is a relic of childhood too often destroyed by age. We tried speaking to people on the tube and my mum imparted one of London’s most important lessons: never talk to strangers, or indeed anyone, on public transport.
My early childhood provided few other retrievable memories. It consisted of climbing trees in parks across the city, playing football with friends, and little else. I can only describe it as happiness, broad and all-encompassing happiness.
High school provided more detailed memories, memories worthy of selection. Garage and Grime were the sounds of the playground, the sounds of teenage London. Kids would walk around, headphones pushed through the collars of their shirts, nodding heads and waving hands in gunshot formation. Some possessed recordings of late-night pirate radio shows, others had homemade mix-tapes of the latest tracks. It started with So Solid Crew, Oxide and Neutrino, Mis-Teeq, Heartless Crew, Ms Dynamite and others—a comparatively mellow sound compared to later Garage, which soon developed into its own subset called Grime.
The shift from Garage to Grime is a contentious topic. I would argue, but friends would disagree, that the shift occurred with the release of Wiley’s classic: “Wot Do U Call It?” It is perhaps ironic that Grime was defined by a song which sought to challenge any staple definition. Wiley was purposefully derisive, mocking the infatuation with classification: “Garage? / I don’t care about garage / Listen to this—it don’t sound like garage / Who told you that I make garage? / Wiley Kat’z got his own sound—it’s not garage.”
I was fourteen when Dizzee Rascal released Boy in da Corner, still one of the greatest Grime records. The album echoed through my high school. Kids sat in classrooms during breaks listening to the album on repeat. Other kids could be heard muttering, “I luv you, you, you,” as they wandered through corridors. Every birthday party would have local DJs playing classic Dizzee tracks—“Fix Up, Look Sharp” and “Jus’ A Rascal”—and PlayStation sessions were supplemented with more thoughtful tunes, such as “Sittin’ Here” and “Jezebel.”
It was in that context, amid that sound, that kids across the city started regularly engaging in MC battles, building on the shared heritage of bootleg copies of Risky Roadzand Lord of the Mics. It was often difficult to discern what was happening in the playground when crowds gathered. It was either a fight or an MC battle: both commanded a circular crowd, both entailed a degree of hype and hysteria. I would watch from the sidelines as older kids ripped into each other, usually adopting playful rather than violent lyrics. The crowd would react dependent on merit and reputation, hungry for both comedy and lyrical dexterity.
As the battles continued and Grime grew in stature, the ethos of the battle swept through classrooms. Kids started making up derisive eight-bars about supposed adversaries during Maths and English, scrawling lines on state-funded A4notebooks. It wasn’t precisely battle rapping in the classrooms but a cruder and more universal form of mockery, a comedic and poetic attempt at annoying friends.
Clothing was the focal point of derision. My friends and I were afraid of not having the latest Kickers, Nike Huaraches, or Reebok Workouts. We were afraid of wearing shoddy tracksuits on non-school-uniform days. We were afraid of sporting two-bit haircuts or poorly aimed double-slits in eyebrows.
One kid in my class wore a knock-off Nike T-shirt to PE and was known henceforth as “Nice.” I forget his real name. Nice was nice enough to own his nickname.
Dizzee described London as “one big melting pot / Every creed, colour and race, we got the lot.” I learnt more in high school listening to music than I did listening to teachers. I learnt more from friends than I did textbooks. I was interested in music and friends, not teachers or books, as my grades and suspensions demonstrated.
I learnt about cuisines through mates from different nationalities. I was surprised to discover, for example, that home-cooked Indian tasted nothing like Saturday night takeaways. My first memory of booze stemmed from nicking my Polish mate’s vodka. I learnt about religion through occasions: enormous feasts at friends’ houses after sundown during Ramadan and eclectic firework displays during Diwali. I learnt about new music during all-day BBQs, where friends’ parents would shack out to unfamiliar sounds, showing contempt for youngsters possessing little knowledge of the classics.
Multicultural London was charming and edifying for the most part, but there were moments that reminded me it was not as simple as Dizzee’s melting pot. I remember BNP stickers on buses, promulgating false information about the supposed criminality of non-whites. I remember police regularly searching black mates for no apparent reason. (I was searched four times before I reached sixteen, but only ever in the company of black mates.) I remember a bloke shouting racist slurs at my Indian friend while we walked home from school. I remember spending the day with my mum in central London, watching her swear under her breath as nationalists marched through the streets of our city.
My friends always laughed at instances of bigotry. I assumed, in youthful naïveté, that my friends were tough enough to just laugh.
Samuel Johnson was not born in London, but he has a famous house in London, which is dull and charmless. His first published work was about London, creatively entitled London, which is also dull and charmless. Johnson did, however, deliver the following line about the city in the 1770s, which seems timeless in the context of multicultural London: “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can show.”
After high school, my friends and I started drinking. We used fake IDs, older siblings’ clothes, and contrived confidence to trick bouncers into letting us into London’s shoddiest pubs, bars, and clubs. The smaller and less bearded among us would regularly get rejected from such venues. The ones that made it past the men in bomber jackets and hefty boots would leave the others behind. Underage boozing, I soon discovered, was shockingly Darwinian. I didn’t mind. I was six-foot, broad-shouldered, and had impressive facial hair, which I grew with the sole aim of tricking bouncers.
The general lack of money meant we depended on cheap bottles of wine from shops that didn’t mind selling to teenagers and spirits we found in parents’ cupboards. At one stage, my brothers and I were all nicking my dad’s booze, every Friday and Saturday, each taking turns to dilute his bottle of rum. My dad was often left with two parts water, one part rum. He didn’t notice, fortunately. He just drank more, unfortunately.
My friends and I roamed the streets of Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Tottenham Court Road, and other locations until we were drunk enough to try our luck. There were often thirty of us, pissed and boisterous, splitting into groups, running around London’s streets, singing songs and looking for credulous bouncers.
We soon developed a roster of pubs and bars—the White Hart in Chiswick, for example, or the Redback in Acton—that would allow thirty-odd sixteen-year-olds to drink themselves half-to-death. Swarms of bodies would arrive at such unfortunate establishments. It was only a matter of time until the bouncers reacted or police shut the place down, and therefore we took full advantage in the brief time we had at each place, getting hysterically drunk, swaying in clouds of Richmond Superkings, attempting to make evenings last until morning.
It was thus we traveled around London’s pubs for two years, finding little utopias of underage boozing. On hungover Sundays, my friends and I would play football in Vicki Park, Boston Manor, or Walpole. We would undercook burgers on disposable barbeques, smoke some of London’s weakest weed, and recite fantastical stories about girls we were supposedly hooking up with.
When I went to university in Brighton, I spoke accentuated cockney so people would know I was from London. Most of my new friends, however, were from the South of England. They knew there were not many cockneys my side of the city and soon questioned my accentuation. I toned it down after a while, comfortable with the half-cockney lilt.
Cockney was an accent I sought to amplify, to parade, but that my nan and my mum sought to tame. I suppose the connotations associated with cockney have changed over the years, or perhaps simply change with age or perspective. It also depends on the crowd.
An additional awareness of culture came back to London through experiences at university. My London friends and I started visiting museums and galleries, art pop-ups and theaters, poetry readings and alternative gigs. We went to restaurants with an interest in cuisine rather than simply to line our stomachs. We attended protests with actual political points to make and some of us joined movements. It seemed London was an entirely different city, the joys of which we had never uncovered.
Drugs came back with university, too, which made the city more intense. Some of my friends and I embraced culture and drugs at the same time. I remember, for example, walking around the National Gallery with two mates, aged twenty-one, armed with bottles of rum and Coke sprinkled with MDMA. We invented a game to aid consumption. We decided to drink every time a painting “meant” something to us, whatever that meant.
I remember other occasions: getting high in the pub before watching Shakespeare, sniffing Charlie in public toilets before film premieres at Somerset House, listening to poetry readings with hip-flasks and pills in coat pockets, attending Hip-Hop and Grime gigs in Shoreditch with Mandy in our drinks, playing Ket in the Dark in a random afterparty in Brixton. I don’t remember much else from those nights, because of the nature of those nights.
Around that time, often drunk and full of bravado, I would walk down alleyways that it was generally recognized one should not walk down. One evening, in one such alleyway, two blokes came up to me and demanded my phone. I decided to smash my phone on the path. Fuck them, I thought. One of them immediately punched me in the face—one of the best punches I’ve ever taken, the fist connecting perfectly with the fleshy part of my cheek—and I went down gracefully, in one sweeping movement, floating towards concrete, not quite unconscious. As I landed, the other bloke kicked me in the face with full force. The incriminating foot was likely clothed in a trainer, probably Vans or Converse, as I retained a modicum of consciousness as the two blokes ruffled through my pockets and stamped on my head a couple of times for good measure. I stayed on the ground for a while, unable to move but still conscious, calmly watching blood seep into a puddle under my left cheek. I remember swallowing a chunk of my front tooth. I must have lain on that dirty pavement for around fifteen minutes, tranquil and dazed, until I saw flashing blue lights.
The paramedics strapped me up, took me to hospital, and put me in bed before sending me home in the early morning. One of the nurses told me I should consider drinking less.
My interest in books grew at the time and so did my interest in literary London. I walked around finding blue plaques—Sylvia Plath in Primrose Hill, Virginia Woolf in Fitzroy Square, Evelyn Waugh in Golders Green. I went to cemeteries with my brothers to visit Karl Marx, George Eliot, and Douglas Adams. I saw Charles Dickens, T. S. Eliot, and plenty of other prominent writers at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. I sat in pubs near Waterloo once occupied by William Shakespeare and pubs in Notting Hill once occupied by Orwell.
I started to purposefully read London fiction. In the winter, I spent evenings in the British Library after work, drinking several white wines and plowing through my favorite London writers. In the summer, I climbed Primrose Hill or Hampstead Heath and sat on benches to read as the sun dipped into the skyline.
My first conscious experience reading contemporary London fiction was Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. I bought the book thinking it might chronicle the Brick Lane I experienced—pissed-up clubbers gorging on pulled pork—rather than the diasporic Bangladeshi community. I was pleasantly surprised. I read and reread everything Zadie Smith had written and found particular joy in White Teethand NW, as I saw characters I knew from my high school and underage drinking years. I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, among others. I bought a collection of poems about London and I read emerging poets based in London. I read nonfiction books, too, and found particular joy in the diligence of Peter Ackroyd and the scorn of Iain Sinclair.
The days and nights of drink and drugs persisted but were growing tedious. The problem lies in the necessity of extremity. Nights out went on for several nights, the drugs became more expensive and powerful, the comedowns more excessive. That was the era of rough days in seemingly pointless jobs and wild evenings: warehouse raves in Whitechapel shut down by police, Saturday mornings on Shepherd’s Bush Green, New Year’s Eve in Aldgate with kind and sociable heroin addicts. I remember little from the nights other than the people and the venues. I have only flashing images of fights and ripped jeans, euphoria, meaningful but forgotten conversations, scars on hands and faces.
I had few real-world objectives at the time. I wanted to get through the week, earn my petty wage, read books and more books, and let go of everything on weekends.
Around the age of twenty-six, most of the people I knew still lived with parents, but others were scattered across the city, spending entire paychecks on rent, booze, and drugs. Flats my friends occupied provided dwellings in every corner of the city where we would talk into the night, listen to music, drink recklessly, and take Charlie. My friends and I would inevitably find ourselves, as the sun rose on Saturday and Sunday mornings, staring at mirrors that looked like baking trays.
But things began to shift around that time. Real life responsibilities started to matter, and partners started to take precedent over parties. Drink and drugs became problematic, the hangovers and comedowns too severe. The problem with constantly using booze and drugs, in general, is similar to the problem one faces at the end of each night: you either double-down and keep going—accepting more euphoria, more intensity—or you call it a night and accept the comedown. My repetitive use on weekends and the increasing use on weekdays was becoming a touch dangerous and limiting other emerging ambitions. I decided to stop relying so heavily on substances to escape, and attempt to forge some sort of future in the city.
The Austrian Philosopher Jeff Malpas claims: “The land around us is a reflection, not only of our practical and technological capacities, but also of our culture and society—of our very needs, our hopes, our preoccupations and dreams.” When the place stops fulfilling such desires, Malpas claims, the individual may seek home elsewhere.
As my expectations changed, London seemed reluctant to cater to them. It is an unwritten rule in the city that millennials without cash-rich parents will seldom own property or will only own property once parents die. Friends yearning for foundations built in decent housing and mortgages started to move out of the city, unable to keep up with the price. Some moved to the outskirts, others moved up north, others abroad.
By twenty-eight, I had risen through the ranks of an editorial team and still struggled to save. I was earning decent money for the first time and I still felt broke. Living costs—traveling, food, the occasional night out, and so on—seemed to grow with each passing month. Rent was excessively high and the mere prospect of a mortgage was out of reach.
In Big Capital, Anna Minton, Reader in Architecture at the University of East London, claims that 25percent of the houses in Knightsbridge and 40percent of the houses in the West End are empty most of the time. Exclusive parts of the city, Minton says, are almost entirely deserted and shrouded in darkness in the evenings.
London’s supposedly affordable housing—so-called “starter homes”—are valued up to £450,000. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that home ownership in the city is at one of the lowest points in the last thirty years. Rents, too, have reached alarming levels, demanding on average more than half of a Londoner’s earnings—compared to 23percent in Germany, for example. Minton claims the rises in house prices and rents have led to a “hollowing out” of the city, forcing Londoners to leave and forcing London to lose its identity.
Almost fifteen years after Boy in da Corner, Dizzee released “Slow Your Roll.” The second verse exemplifies the problems with housing in London, problems many of my friends faced: “Foreign investment raising the stock up / So the rent got propped up / And it kept gettin’ topped up / So the heart got ripped out and rinsed out / Some got shipped out, got kicked out / Few of them stayed but the rest just dipped out / Took the quick route.”
At Notting Hill Carnival, intoxicated and exhausted, I wandered the streets amid the litter amalgamated through a day of rum punch and Red Stripe, chocolate fights and sound systems, Garage and Grime and Dub and Reggae and Ska. I looked at streets with plenty of empty houses, mostly owned by investors who had never cared about London, never cared about our culture, never had attachments or memories or stories built in the city. The houses made more money merely existing, empty or otherwise, than I had made since I had existed.
A group called ClampK runs “Kleptocracy Tours” in London, which take journalists and anti-corruption activists across the city to view expensive homes where no one lives. The tour skirts around the streets where Carnival is held and moves throughout the city to explore homes owned by the friends and family of foreign dictators and Russian oligarchs. Some of the houses are mansions, others take up entire blocks. All of them are empty for most of the year and all of them could be transformed into affordable housing. The tour stands as an absurd symptom of a failing system.
My working-class parents bought housing in London with low-paying jobs, very little savings, and a touch of ambition. That opportunity is unavailable to my generation.
H. G. Wells described London as an obstacle. He saw the city as the measurement by which we can judge social change. If London can prove kind and just, Wells argued, the rest of the country has promise. For plenty of young people, London has failed by that measurement.
I decided to move primarily because I could barely afford to rent in the borough where I grew up and I certainly could not afford to rent anywhere near where I worked. Living costs were too steep and travel was too grueling. I started to imagine another place, where I could buy a pint for less than a fiver, where I could walk to work rather than stand for forty-five minutes in overheated and overcrowded trains, where I could pay only30percent of my salary on rent and maybe, one day, afford a house that I could identify as my own.
It took several months before I found editorial work outside London. There were plenty of trips back and forth, plenty of interviews, plenty of rejections. Eventually, I received a phone call. I heard the word congratulations. I felt happy and relieved. I also felt remorse. My decision to leave was not easy. I have always loved London. I have always loved being a Londoner. Leaving the city, however, seemed to be the right choice.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote in his journal: “It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”
I left from Paddington Station with one suitcase, filled with books and clothes, and one backpack, filled with books and a stubby bottle of whisky because I fancied a drink.
As the train moved from the station, I watched the city disappear behind me. I thought about being romantic and ceremonial. I thought about displaying emotion, maybe even confiding in one of the strangers on my train, but I decided against it. My mum taught me that Londoners do not speak to strangers, or indeed anyone, on public transport.
Identities are not formed solipsistically. They reside in interactions with the world and the people that occupy the world. They are reinforced through selective and fragmented memories and the telling and retelling of stories.
My mum read MacNeice when she was thirty-two. He became one of her favorite poets. The first time she read MacNeice, my mum says, was when she was pregnant with my eldest brother, after all that uncertainty, after all that pain.
Before he was a fire watcher, on rooftops in the center of my city, MacNeice composed arguably the most beautiful poem ever written about London. It is a poem my mum read to me when I was growing up. It is my favorite poem. It concludes: “My wishes now come homeward / Their gallopings in vain, / Logic and lust are quiet, / And again it starts to rain; / Falling asleep I listen / To the falling London rain.”