And so… I’m back! After not-really-a-year of hibernation/ enforced shutdown that came from the somewhat abrupt transition from a pretty relaxed existence by the seaside in Anglet (reading on the beach) to *shudder* the horror of being an Oxford Finalist. (If ever a word deserved a capital letter it was that one!) My creative juices (and indignant rage) were being channeled elsewhere, and, to put it simply, when you spend your day staring at a computer screen willing the information to stick, you don’t want to waste your free time staring at a computer screen trying to think of something to say. And trust me, unless you wanted a regurgitated essay on Medieval Spanish literature, nothing blogworthy happened to me over this past year.
But now I’m back, from’t Finalist space (prizes if you suss out what tune you should be singing that one to!), and loitering in what my inexplicably French Wikipedia calls ‘Le grand smog de Londres’. This is not the first time I have been to The Big City (sorry, part of my chippy Northern DNA somehow compels me to dig out my metaphorical clogs and flat cap every time I go Down South, and so the vowels get flatter and the temptation to start exclaiming ‘ee by gum’ at key moments becomes almost irresistible. But more of that later.), but somehow age/ wisdom/ post-Finals weariness have tinted my rose-coloured spectacles a kind of grubby brown and I find myself quietly despairing at the thought of ever having to actually, you know, live here. I mean, who would choose to move to a place where your standard household chores include removing mineral deposits from the inside of your kettle?
I’ll be brief: much as I like the idea of London, I don’t like London. I’m not quite sure why, since Manchester is a big grimy city and my home and will always exercise a kind of visceral pull that means I instinctively tell people I live there (the day I say I’m from Oxford is the day the music dies), and I loved Paris (and the Parisians) despite my best efforts and their horrible driving. And I smile when I see the London Eye and have to cross the Thames and spot St Paul’s and get the train to Paddington (no bears, though) and follow road signs to Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace. But London itself is big and sprawling and dirty and noisy, its people are grumpy and never smile, its roads are a mess and I’d prefer it if it numbered its districts à la Parisienne rather than giving them less-than-logical names that don’t-quite-ring-a-bell. I spent about half a day revelling in having other cyclists waiting with me at junctions, before realising that selfish cyclists hogging the cycley bit in front of the cars, going on either side of lorries, suddenly stopping in front of you, swinging out, doing the macho man/ teenage boy overtake thing, not looking where they’re going and other assorted irritating things is not worth the brief feeling of solidarity you get hanging around with someone else waiting for this bloody bus to actually move. And as for those buses, in no other place has it seemed quite so ridiculous to put two such diametrically opposed modes of transport in one single lane; nowhere else is it so obvious that this isn’t urban planning but a wish and a (secular, non-denominational) prayer. Leaving aside the assorted grids, potholes, parked vehicles, random holes in the road (as in gas mains type holes, not just bad road surfacing) and mutant bits of melted-looking tarmac, to put it bluntly, bikes are small, travel at a pretty steady speed and are potentially vulnerable to being whacked by a great lumbering red double decker thing. Buses are big, unwieldly, forever pulling in and out of stops and have whopping great blind spots. Stick the two together. What could possibly go wrong?
I have too many opinions on cycling to wedge into this overview, but since it makes up a big part of my time here I thought it was worth mentioning. When people told me I was brave/ mad to cycle in London, I laughed and said I had done Manchester, Paris, Oxford (and not La Paz, because I don’t actually have a death wish). What I hadn’t taken into account is how a city can have so many people riding bikes on streets so unsuitable for them.
And then, of course, there is the gender politics, the class war, the regional prejudices. I’m currently working in a female-dominated office, with the growing realisation that I’m not a big fan (does that make me a terrible feminist?). I have heard the words ‘incomprehensible accent’ applied to just about everyone, from an elderly ‘Northern’ man at a wedding to the office building staff and someone on the phone (when was that ever an acceptable thing to do, to blame your inability to listen on their pronunciation? Why have the upper classes always felt the need to protect their superiority through mockery of their underlings, belittling them and thus undermining any prospect of respecting them and allowing for their own self-respect?), and I have silently willed people to understand that in my pre-Oxford existence I was state school educated and probably incredibly naive about contacts and privilege and such things. I sometimes wonder whether the fact that my heart sinks when I read the word ‘networking’ is part of my genes (the Irish farmer ancestors being too busy digging up potatoes to be handing out business cards. And yes, I’m being chippy. It’s my standard state. And that was a chip/ potato pun. Possibly intended.), or my upbringing, or simply a personal preference to avoid awkward self-promotion. In some ways I know that I’m the model of a supposedly aspirational generation that will leave the Regions (yes, that is more ironic capitalisation, well spotted) to move to London and live in tiny flats working horribly long hours and doing ridiculous commutes as we sell our souls for a slice of a dream that isn’t even ours and nobody will quite own up to having. But actually, if it’s alright with you I might give that one a miss.