In September 2011 I bought some red lipstick and moved to London to begin the rest of my life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it was the best thing I ever did.
I’ve been a regular visitor to London throughout my life and I was very drawn to the idea of living there. I liked how big it was, I liked the tube, I liked the interesting things to do – it was so much more exciting than Belfast! My dad is from London and we went over to see his side of the family fairly often. We went to the zoo and Madame Tussauds (this was before London attractions were horribly, unaffordably expensive) and had lunch at Govinda’s afterwards. There was a joke shop on Rathbone Place where Dad bought me a pair of glasses made of drinking straws. The juice whizzed around your face in a very pleasing way. I was delighted with them. My mum took me to the British Museum where we looked at the Indian temple deities made of stone. I still go and see them from time to time, quietly singing the Dasavatara Stotra under my breath. (Not all of it. I don’t believe that anyone really knows all of the words.) When I was ten, Dad gave me the job of navigating the tube for the week. A very useful life skill to have indeed. I’m still a bit disdainful of visitors who are unsure of the tube. We went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street and to Pizza Hut afterwards. (So began the Scott family’s great love affair with Pizza Hut. It was predominantly my dad’s love affair, to be honest.) I remember a trip to Wembley where I bought bangles and we had a dosa followed by mango kulfi. We went to Greenwich to climb the hill and stood astride the meridian timeline, surveying the city below.
In 2011 I was living at home and doing a PGDip in Careers Guidance when the Tory government got rid of careers guidance provision in one fell swoop. I hadn’t ever really wanted a job in Northern Ireland and there weren’t any anyway. More worryingly, there didn’t seem to be any jobs in England either. I’d done lots of work in schools, which I’d enjoyed and since I didn’t really know what else to do, I applied for a PGCE and got a place at King’s College London. I thought I could teach languages and be Head of Careers at a grammar school in the London suburbs somewhere. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I would wake up at 2am, with a strong feeling it wasn’t the right thing to do. But what was the alternative?
I tried quite hard not to think too much about the fact that I was unemployed, fat, living at home, single and struggling to find my way in a post-recession world with a Tory government. I felt I was standing on a train platform, watching other people coming and going while my life was frozen and going nowhere. Where had I gone wrong? I feared I’d be stuck forever. I was a sad sack that summer. Someone I had gone out with contacted me out of the blue. I had no idea why he had contacted me, why he seemed so angry or why he felt the need to say such cruel things. As far as I knew, he was living with his long-legged girlfriend (Oh dear, I’m talking about legs again) in the Chilterns, or maybe it was the Cotswolds… It sounded like a rather idyllic existence. I imagined that if I lived in the Cotswolds and/or Chilterns with someone who had nice legs that I’d be kind to people who were unemployed, fat, living at home and depressingly single. Surely I wouldn’t make them feel worse about any of those things. Surely I’d have some awareness of how lucky I was. (I’d also be kind to anyone who had surprised me with a chocolate birthday cake with my name iced on it.)
I felt uncomfortable that I was so bothered by the past rearing its head. Wasn’t I meant to be WOMAN, indomitable, risen from the ashes like a phoenix, resplendent and fabulous? Perhaps singing I Will Survive, dressed in a Brazilian carnival dancer’s costume? Had I failed on that front too? (I don’t mean the feathered costume. There is a fine costume rental shop in Belfast. I’m sure they have Brazilian carnival wear.) Having the past dragged up and being on the receiving end of such colossal, vitriolic anger when I didn’t feel brilliant about myself or life was … too much. I don’t remember that summer fondly. I remember how awful those words made me feel. I really wish someone could have told me that four months later I’d meet the person I’d marry. (In case you’re wondering, the Doctor has great legs.)
I needed a change. I needed to get out, get out of my teenage bedroom and start afresh somewhere. Somewhere where life would work, where there were possibilities. Somewhere with a temple where fun things happened and there were proper kirtans. I wanted a job and somewhere I could put down roots. London seemed to offer all of those things. My dad really tried to put me off moving to London. I just ignored him. All my university friends lived there, so I moved too.
I hoped moving to London would solve all my problems. It did. It was exactly what I hoped it would be and everything fell neatly into place. The Short Skirt Brigade lived not too far away in Willesden Green, co-incidentally a few doors down from another good friend. It took me months to catch up with everyone from university who was in London. I discovered Lebanese food, went to Primrose Hill and Hampstead, walking over the heath. (Not badgering. I’m not into that sort of thing.) I remember getting to know London better, in a haphazard sort of way. Slowly learning how it all fitted together; walking across the river instead of getting the tube, learning where it was quicker to walk between two stations. I lived with some old friends, in their box room on the Watford ring road. Not really London, not really Hertfordshire, but it was only twenty minutes from Euston on the train and that suited me just fine. They were a couple with a young baby. My friends laughed at how keen I was on the baby. I was unnerved by the physical response I felt to her. I hadn’t expected to feel this broody until I was a bit older. I would lie in bed in the mornings and listen to her gurglings through the wall. I got the train into town each day and hopped on the tube to King’s, perched on the Waterloo Bridge by the river. My classmates were warm, lovely people (as I would hope teachers to be) and I was on placement in a nice girls’ grammar school. The girls were admittedly more interested in my leopard print heels than my attempts to teach them German.
I also went on dates. I had decided it was time to be pragmatic. I was tired of waiting; it just wasn’t happening and the normal single man with a job seemed to be a rare, possibly endangered creature. I joined match.com. (For people who were quite serious about finding a relationship, but not eHarmony, I-want-to-be-married-with-a-baby-within-18-months-serious.) I had resorted to trawling the internet to find love. How embarrassing. (I’m so relieved Tinder didn’t exist when I was single.) I had coffee with an artist who still lived with his mother. I met a man who told me about his dental problems and about his experiences working in the Middle East, where he struggled with body odour due to the heat and felt like a ‘crazed animal’ as men and women were segregated. There was a man who was perfectly nice but quite boring and was clearly lying about his age.
Then I went on a date with a man with a Maths PhD in St Albans. He was tall with dark hair and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him until he started thumping the table and yelling ‘DRINK! FECK! GIRLS!’. I suspected, correctly, that I’d met someone who was as mad as me. We went out for dinner at a Persian restaurant a week later. He ordered two starters and I thought this might be a good match as I quite wanted someone to feed. I only ordered one starter – an aubergine dish that I still think about sometimes. It came with fresh warm bread from the tandoor oven, which was by the front door rather than in the kitchen and warmed the whole room.
It all seemed to be going quite well, which was a bit of a novelty to me. He seemed to say what he meant and meant what he said and didn’t say or do anything that confused me. He rang when he said he would and was always on time. He was clever and funny and even shared my bizarre encyclopaedic knowledge of The Simpsons! We made an apple pie one Sunday afternoon and he crafted a pastry Doctor and a pastry Deva out of the leftover pastry to sit side by side atop the pie. When I asked him where he thought things were going, he said in a matter of fact way that he’d already told everyone at work that he had a new girlfriend. No slippery commitment phobia, no ifs, no buts, no ‘I’m just not looking for a relationship right now’. I was very pleased. And relieved. For Valentine’s day he bought me a book of Middle eastern recipes, mostly aubergine.
We moved in together quite soon. I hadn’t expected things to move so quickly. I was happy yet slightly puzzled that my life had changed so much in the space of a year. We lived in a tiny flat by the station in St Albans (I’d upgraded from the Watford ring road, you see). I couldn’t quite get my head around being an adult, a co-habiting adult in a home county who commuted into London. I remember buying furniture and saucepans for the flat. We had friends over for dinner. Thai curry and cosy domesticity. We went to the kitchen shop to buy a cheese knife. It was in a section of the shop with items like pea ladles and sugar tongs. The woman at the till told us we were very wise to buy a cheese knife when we did (it was October) as you couldn’t get one for love nor money in the run up to Christmas. Bloody middle classes. Then we both got jobs in south London and it didn’t make sense to live there any more. We spent far too much time and money on trains and it was exhausting. It was a bit of a wrench to leave. I’d grown quite attached to the outer reaches of north London, really not London, but you can get into London quickly. We needed to move to live closer to work.
When I moved to London, East was the place to be. My dad grew up in East London. He went to East Ham Grammar School and supported West Ham Football Club. They moved out to Ilford to in the hope of becoming a bit posher. He tells me how rough Hackney was, how you couldn’t get a taxi to come to Hoxton; you needed to walk down to Islington. I remember how underwhelmed and disappointed I was by Shoreditch. I bought a frozen yoghurt from a ridiculous shopping centre that appeared to be made of wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. I couldn’t believe how grotty the place was, punctuated with trendy overpriced shops and restaurants, which just made the surrounding areas look even grottier. Maybe it would be fun if it was cheap but it wasn’t. At some stage, people stopped going out in the West end but went out in Hoxton, Brixton or Peckham instead, something that alluded to neighbourhoods, so you could pretend you were in Brooklyn.
The hipster has all but disappeared but I remember how much they irritated me. Their trousers were too short, their clothes were shapeless and they wore horrible glasses. BY CHOICE! They lived in rough areas which were supposedly cool now but just seemed horrid. I was puzzled. I had spent my whole life avoiding wearing my glasses and I’d grown up on a sprawling estate with tower blocks on the edges. I’d gone to university precisely to escape that. Why was I now supposed to pretend it was cool? I was horrified by the trend for street food. Instead of going out for dinner and sitting at a table, people wanted to stand in a disused car park in the cold and eat things from containers. WHY???? Surely we could go to an actual restaurant and eat off plates, now that we had jobs!
My dad suggested we move to Wanstead Flats, the only part of East London he considered nice enough to live in by choice. It’s an enormous common that goes yellow sometimes, giving it the appearance of the savannah. Unlike the savannah, it’s surrounded by lovely Victorian terraced houses. However, like anywhere half way nice in London with period houses, it was quite expensive so we moved south-east instead. We found a great flat in Blackheath, 15 minutes walk from where I worked. (For the same amount of rent, we could have lived above a kebab shop in Bethnal Green. I rest my case.) We walked over the heath and and into Greenwich park, over to the observatory and the view of the city, where I’d stood all those years ago. It really was lovely. I enjoyed pretending to be middle-class. There were two French boulangeries, a farmers’ market on a Saturday and a kitchen shop that sold kilner jars.
I’ve been in London for over seven years and one of my favourite things is still walking through the city. I don’t mean in a Will Self way, reflecting aloud on Radio 4 as he strides through the areas surrounding Uxbridge like the BFG. I mean walking from Marylebone over to Euston down through Bloomsbury past UCL into Covent Garden, ending up on the Strand and walking over the Waterloo Bridge before getting the train home. Or maybe walking along the river from London Bridge, over Tower Bridge, along the other side of the river along to St Paul’s to have lunch at Ping Pong on Bread Street. I love the historic street names in the City: Milk Street, Bread Street, Old Jewry (where the Jewish moneylenders were once based). My grandmother had been PA to the chairman of the Midland Bank, on the corner of Cheapside. It’s now a luxury hotel and private members’ club, part of Soho House.
London has changed since I moved here. The skyline has changed; as my train chugs over the Thames in the dark to the chimes of Big Ben, I look east down the river and note the new skyscrapers. The houses have become even more stupidly expensive. The restaurants have changed too – they no longer serve proper meals but ‘small plates’ which are lists of ingredients separated by commas. ‘Whipped goat’s curd, hazelnut dukkah, hispi cabbage, balsamic reduction.’ Some of our friends have left London. I feel oddly claustrophobic at the idea of leaving. Yes, it’s noisy and crowded and expensive and becoming more and more hollowed out as everywhere gentrifies. But I have no intention of leaving. What on earth would we do elsewhere? Are there even jobs outside London? I came in search of a life and built one, a busy one full of cake and kirtan. The city is full of memories for me, years of memories. I wouldn’t leave.