Infinite Possibilities : The Reasons for Returning to London

If you’re tired of London, are you really tired of life? To be fair, if you’re tired of anything, it’s probably that quote but leaving that aside, I’m still not convinced. Our life out of London wasn’t a half life – on the contrary, it had many magical moments – but it was a more defined life. There were things we could do and things we couldn’t.

I used to think our decision to return to London just boiled down to basic maths : What we’d gained didn’t add up to what we’d lost.  Yes, we had a beautiful house and garden and a view to die for – everything in fact we’d longed for from the confines of our one-bed flat – but I missed London’s restaurants, the museums and galleries more than I could have imagined. A more reliable rail link into London might have helped: If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone thinking of moving out and commuting, it’s to check, check and check again the statistics for your line. It’s no exaggeration to say I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-disrupted journeys I had during our time in the Village. Whenever we tried to go out, the worry of whether we’d ever make it back was always there. In the end, we stopped trying. Space, it seems, doesn’t buy you happiness, it just gives you more bedrooms in which to mope about the house.

Looking back, I realise now it was never that simple. For all the times I was confronted by a wall of ‘delayed’ messages at Euston, there were glorious autumn days, woodland walks and slap up pub lunches for less than the cost of a pint in London. It wasn’t a question of having made the wrong or the right choice, what I missed was the luxury of not having to choose at all.

More than anywhere I’ve ever lived, London lets you be all the people you are – career woman, homemaker, socialite, recluse, happy, sad. Life in the Village was perfect as a hot date – superficially attractive and great for a good time just not up to handling my moods. London is a real soulmate – still capable of pissing me off but always there as a support, no matter what.

Inifite Possibilities

London is a place of infinite possibilities. You can turn left or you can turn right, but you can equally meander though life, twisting and turning in every direction just like the Thames flowing through the city. Coming back, what I’ve enjoyed the most aren’t the restaurants, the museums, the galleries – all the things I thought I’d missed – but the unexpected gems, the things I’ve stumbled on and which I never imagined myself doing in million years: listening on the edge of my seat to a story of sailing solo round the world, even though I don’t do boats and get seasick on a river taxi; Meeting Dave who went blind aged 18 and discovering what it’s like finding your way around London without sight; learning about parkour from kids half my age practicing at the end of the street. Arguably I could also have done any of these in the Village if I wanted but then, that’s exactly the point – I’d have to have gone looking for them. In London, they just happen.

London isn’t a fairy tale nor are its streets paved with gold, but life here is richer and more colourful than anything we had before; And even if I haven’t yet made my fortune Dick Whittington style, at least I’ve got the cat!

Socialist Principles : Chairman Meow & Meeting the Neighbours

Chairman Meow has been checking out the local restaurant scene: He came home smelling of fish when we only feed him chicken. Clearly, it was a dodgy late night take-away because next morning, we had a rather sickly kitty. A couple of days later and he still wasn’t better, so it was off to the Vet we go.

Henry Asleep

There’s nothing like a pet, especially a poorly one, to help break down traditional British reserve. I always remember as a child taking Clarrie (our corgi) for a walk – Half the neighbourhood would appear, demanding an introduction to my dog. Sure enough, the moment we stepped outside with the Chairman, the bloke next door waved from his garden and asked if everything was ok. As ice-breakers go, it seems it’s not just about doggy grins. A cat’s look of pure disdain is equally hard to resist.

London has a bit of a bad reputation on the community spirit front. The 2002 Lonely Planet guide famously claimed Londoners would “no more speak to a stranger in the street than fly to the moon” and not much has changed, apparently, in the last decade: In a recent survey, London was voted one of the unfriendliest cities in the world, second only to Moscow.

Strike up a casual conversation with a Londoner on the tube and it’s true, you might as well have mooned at their mum for the reaction you’ll receive. But Underground etiquette aside, in many ways London’s a far easier place in which to make friends than much of the UK.  It’s not just the sheer numbers of people (8m of them and counting) but the diversity. When you’re surrounded day in, day out by more than 270 different nationalities and 300 languages, you have to accept people simply for what they are, rather than what they should be.

Life in the Village was a bit like sending a dyslexic to the World Scrabble Tournament. People weren’t actively unfriendly, but there was always this lingering sense of ‘why are you here?’. The default population was all middle class, middle management and middle school children (it’s not called ‘middle England’ for nothing). If you didn’t fit the mould, fitting in was equally difficult.

Not only does London have the highest proportion of DINKies (dual income, no kids) in the country, but around half the city’s population is single. In other words, there’s a whole host of people out there who have neither dependents nor the security of a domestic social scene and for whom a drink after work or the local football club isn’t just a luxury but a necessity. Don’t get me wrong, being single in London still isn’t easy: If you’re one in a million, knowing there must be at least another 8 like you isn’t much comfort when all you seem to find are the 7,999,992 who aren’t. However, at least you’re in with a chance of meeting them.

It was an invite to a local barbecue which really hammered the point home. Parties in the Village had revolved solely around kiddy birthdays and school fêtes, something from which we were automatically considered disqualified. Here, everyone in the neighbourhood was invited regardless: Aussies, Kiwis, bikers, fishermen, politicians, photographers and no doubt a few tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies too. As a social mix, it shouldn’t have worked and perhaps it didn’t, but once the wine started flowing, we stopped caring and just had a good time.

As for the Chairman, he’s now fully recovered and back doing his bit: He was caught the other day in next door’s house and unceremoniously booted out. Clearly one way to meet the neighbours, if not to make yourself popular!

The Meowist Movement : Moving House with Chairman Meow

Chairman Meow was due before the Parole Board today. It’s been a month since we moved back to London and all the official guidelines say to keep your cat indoors for the first 28 days.  I’d like to claim he got time off for good behaviour but bad behaviour is closer to the truth. Ten days in, he was having none of this house arrest nonsense and legged it out the back door.

They say dogs have owners, cats have staff. If moving house with a cat has taught me anything, it’s the true meaning of “pussy-footing around”. Even our decision to return to London kept being delayed out of concern for The Chairman: We’d have happily squeezed ourselves back into some grungy one bed but there was no way Meow was getting anything less than a house and garden and traffic free access. So hardly surprising it took ages to find somewhere a. on brief and b. affordable without a winning lottery ticket. Even then, there was this nagging doubt that London just wasn’t the right sort of place for a cat. Eventually, it boiled down to a leap of faith : If Chairman Mao could conquer the city from the country, we reckoned our Meow would manage ok.

But first, how to get him there. The usual advice made no sense: “consider booking your cat into a cattery for a few days whilst you get everything sorted”. I’m sure there are superhuman domestic goddesses out there who can be done and dusted in just a few days but down here, amongst us mere mortals, we knew we’d still be lugging furniture and unpacking for weeks to come.

As our life increasingly descended into a chaos of bubble-wrap and boxes, it was clear separation wasn’t the answer for Chairman Meow. He clocked we were on the move and refused to let us out of his sight (It really is quite disconcerting when your cat won’t even let you go to the loo on your own!) Given his origins as a rescue cat*, he was always more likely than most to have abandonment issues, but he seemed genuinely worried he’d be left behind.

Rebellion will be punished

In the end, the fact that Chairman Meow was a rescue cat actually made the move easier: We’d been through the process before of introducing him to a new home and so were more confident in what to do and what to expect. At either end, we kept him in the spare room, safely out of harm’s way, whilst the removals men did their job. The travelling, we knew, was always going to be the hardest part. Cats are connoisseurs of comfort. Anything less than five star accommodation and a first class ticket leaves them pretty unimpressed, let alone a pet travel box and long car journey.

For the Chairman too, this was clearly nothing like as traumatic as coming home from the rescue centre. Yes, there was a new house to get used to, but at least he didn’t have to adjust both to a new neighbourhood and new owners (aka staff) . Back then, we had weeks of cowering under the bed plus moments of pure Psycho-Kitty madness. This time, he only hid for 24hrs before curiosity got the better of him and he came out for an explore.

A month on and it’s obvious Chairman Meow actually prefers his new pad. We’d been so focused on all the bad things that were to be found in London, the traffic, the people, the foxes etc, it never occurred to us to think about the ones that weren’t – in particular, other cats. Back in the Village, everyone seemed to have a cat; and since all cats are born believing they’ve a divine right to rule, the Chairman was forever battling neighbours and rivals as they tried to rob him of power. Here, he’s finally claimed his rightful position as Supreme Leader.

Since moving to London, we’ve noticed a real change in the Chairman: He’s confident now, sassy and street-wise, not-so-much unfriendly but definitely diffident and decidedly difficult to impress.

A power-crazed puss perhaps? No. Just a typical Londoner.

*For more about Chairman Meow and his transformation from humble orphan cat to great Meowist leader, click here

Wobbly Bottoms and Other Country Hazards

Chairman Meow is on a diet. The Vet has branded him a podgy puss and it would hardly do for a great Meowist leader to turn into a capitalist Fat Cat

The Chairman isn’t the only one who’s found himself out of shape after a year in the Country. Rural living, it seems, can seriously damage your waistline. That said, it’s not as though we weren’t warned. Just down the road from us was Wobbly Bottom Farm on Wibbly Wobbly Lane : clearly a sign.

WWL final

Like many, we left London in pursuit of a better life. What we found was often cleaner, cheaper and less crowded, yes, but healthier, no – not least because we were suddenly so dependent on our car. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, the railway network will march you up and march you down, but cross-country is a completely different story.  I’d have given anything not to drive half way round the M25 everyday, but it was practically impossible to get to work by public transport.

On the domestic front too, we found ourselves completely reliant on four wheels. In London, you’re never more than half a mile from countless grocers, restaurants and clothes shops. Most Home Counties have just a few hundred of each and even then, they’re mainly concentrated in the large towns. Our nearest big supermarket was 10 miles away – far too far to walk for the necessities of life like 25% off 6 bottles of wine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t go for walks, many of them glorious. It’s just that we had to choose to go for a walk just as you choose to go to the cinema or go to the gym. And much like going to the gym, it’s amazing how much more appealing even ironing can seem when it’s pissing it down with rain. When we did actually venture beyond the front door, there was a real sense of ‘big day out’ and any health benefits were rapidly undone en route with a celebratory pub lunch

Around 5.7m journeys are made on foot every day in the capital. Much like breathing, walking in London is something that just happens unconsciously: walk to the tube station, run for a bus, pop down the road for a pint of milk. You can try and avoid walking, but it’s probably not going to do you much good: Cycling is all the effort but with added danger (just ‘extreme walking’ really), taxi hopeless if you’re south of the River, helicopter a tad extravagant and a bitch to park.

Of all the reasons for coming back to London, losing a few pounds seemed as likely as moving to Iceland for a tan. Frankly, gaining a few pounds was (and is!) far higher up the agenda. There are over 50 Michelin starred restaurants in London and after a year in the culinary wilderness (ie an Italian, an Indian and a dodgy Chinese takeway) I’m hell-bent on sampling them all : It’s just I’m taking it (literally) one step at a time.

Life after London? A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess (well, I did say this was a Fairy Tale…) who longed for a great castle in the country. For she and her handsome Prince were trapped in a one bed flat in London and the little they had, they were forced to sacrifice to the cruel god, Monthly Rent.

One day, they met a mysterious woman, brandishing copies of Homes & Gardens and full of stories of spacious living. “Fear not” she said “For I am an Estate Agent. I’ll take you to a house where dreams are born and your heart will fly”. They travelled for what seemed like forever and a day. The land turned green and Capital Radio was lost and the Princess was very afraid. But the woman said to be of good courage for they were but 30mins from London by train.

At first, the Prince and Princess were very happy in their rustic new home. The sun shone and from their window a splendid garden could be seen, full of flowers and herbs. Puss in Boots’ long lost cousin, Chairman Meow, came to stay. Even the Lord of the village, Affordable Living, proved to be kindly master in whose realm you got change from a tenner when buying a round.

But as time went by, a chill crept across the land. The Prince and Princess realized they’d been tricked, bewitched by promises of ensuite bathrooms, generous bedrooms and period features. For Affordable Living had an evil twin, Killer Commute, who demanded an enormous tithe whenever they ventured beyond the village. Even then, he seldom let them pass but ensnared them with signalling problems and late running services.

Summer turned to winter and the Princess grew sad and lonely. Kindly as the villagers were, they spoke a strange and foreign tongue, the language of Children, rich in potty training, Peppa Pig and key stage three. She longed to talk of wine and late night screenings not late night screaming and whines.

One day, the princess sat looking forlornly at her beautiful ball-dresses and wondering whether she’d ever get to wear them again. For she was sure this wasn’t quite how the story was supposed to go. All of a sudden, there was burst of light. A little old lady appeared: “Don’t be afraid, Princess” she said, “For I am Mother Google, your Fairy Godmother, and you shall go to the ball!”

“But the last train leaves at 10.30” cried the Princess. “I wouldn’t even finish dinner, let alone turn into a pumpkin!”

“Fear not, for I will grant you life back in London”

At this, the Princess began to sob. “How can you?!  We can’t leave Chairman Meow and he needs a house and a garden and traffic free access. Not even Fairy Tale Princesses can afford that in London (well, other than the ones who’ve ditched princes for bankers). No, we’re doomed to live forever in the Oyster Card wilderness”

But the good Fairy Google just smiled. With a click, she transported the Prince and Princess to the Kingdom of Rotherhithe. All around were tranquil woodlands, cobbled streets and river views. They couldn’t believe their eyes: It was a little bit of the Village in Zone 2!

Their Fairy Godmother pointed to a house that was neither too big, nor too small but just right; And the Prince and Princess vowed to ditch their Country Life for this country lite.

As for whether they lived happily ever after, well, that’s what this blog is all about…