I first came to London when I was 10 years old. It was a school trip and I was beside myself with excitement for weeks before. When we finally got there, I lapped up the visits to the ‘sights’, the museums, the parks, the zoo. There was a heatwave. We saw the Queen (fleeting glimpse as she drove past, but still). And I was mesmerized by the whole place. I still have the pre-trip school project, the itinerary, the postcards, the blurry 1970s photos.
A few years later, I insisted our family holiday had to include London. It was in the era of our happy caravan trips through Scotland and England. In what I’m sure was resignation in the face of constant yapping from the back seat, my poor parents dragged the caravan all the way down to Slough (the nearest park we could find to London), and we trained it in. I was in my element.
Looking back, I’m not completely sure I can articulate what exactly it was that attracted the 10 year old me to the city. (How cool would it be to have a journal from your childhood?) All I know is that I was obsessed: I had regular dreams about living in London and the visits only reinforced it all.
And so, roll on many, many years, and it turns out I’ve spent most of my life here. And after all that time, the fact is that, when I walk across Waterloo Bridge, I still get exactly the same buzz. When I have a swim in the ponds in Hampstead, or look out across the city from Primrose Hill, or cycle home across town in the dead of a summer’s night, I have a huge passion for this city. And a deep gratitude I’m able to live that 10 year old’s dream. As the years go on, I’ve realized I love it more than ever.
After years of trying to figure it out, I think I’m a bit clearer on why that is. Yes I love the sense of being at the centre of things. I love the access to the National Theatre, Tate, the constant stream of cultural events. I love checking out Hackney’s latest ‘in’ restaurant, bar, club. Yes I love the ever growing variety and quality of the food. And I love the beautiful parks, the Regent’s Canal, the river, the fact that cycling, running, walking becomes so much a part of your life.
But all of these are not actually it. The thing that I’ve realized this place offers me more than anything, is a welcome. It’s a place that says, ‘I understand you’, ‘you fit in OK’, ‘you belong here’.
There’s no ‘expected’ way of being, of living your life, in this city. Instead, there’s an openness, a tolerance, a celebration of diversity. As a result, what you get is an experience of constant newness – new people, new horizons, new perspectives. You form friendships with people who ‘get’ you. It can be inspiring and challenging (and maybe sometimes intimidating). But most of all, you feel welcome.
That’s something that, after spending time in places less open, less tolerant, less embracing you come to appreciate even more. And it’s at the root of my (well documented!) despair at Brexit. When I hear EU friends say they no longer feel welcome here, it breaks my heart. Brexiteer rejection of openness, internationalism, diversity is the polar opposite of everything this city represents and, as Time Out so eloquently described after the vote, anathema to true Londoners.
So yes of course it would be pretty good if we could drag London down to somewhere near Valencia and also tag on a beach. Yea, if like me you’re prone to a bit of FOMO, it can drive you insane at times. And yes, I know I also speak from a position of privilege; it’s far from being an easy city for everyone.
But right now, as I embark on a period away, I’m taking stock and thinking – London, I love you. Today even more than as an idealistic 10 yr old. Long may you continue to offer openness, tolerance, a sense of belonging, and an embracing welcome.
I intend to be back…