Wednesday, 21 April 2010

City girl

My lovely friend and ace blogger Nappy Valley Girl has inspired this post with her own musings today.

Like me NVG finds herself marooned in the suburbs by circumstance and parenthood, and although we are both still within touching distance of a throbbing metropolis, her New York and me London, we are both consigned to the territory of double garages, 4x4s and Starbucks being the most chi chi coffee establishment in town. Actually I am guessing at what it's like for NVG as I have yet to visit her but this is the picture I get based on her regular bulletins from across the pond.

Of course it wasn't always so. When we first met we were both working for a magazine based on the borders between Soho and Bloomsbury. The office was rickety and far from practical - at the end of our days there you had to climb over a wall of chipboard just to get up the stairs to work- but all that London had to offer was literally on our doorstep. These were the days before marriage and kids wore off our edgy coolness, we lived in flats near town and spent our time out at drunken press parties and jetting off on press trips around the world (though the less said about the content of these trips the better).

We were the archetypal city girls and perhaps what bonded us most was that both of us had grown up as ex-pats, her in the altogether more exotic Hong Kong, me in the surprisingly lively capital of Europe, Brussels. What we had loved about our lives was the fact that they were both in the city, we weren't provincial English girls brought up on ponies and pubs. While I can't speak for her, my teenage years were wasted smoking pretentious white Cartier cigarettes, drinking vodka cocktails and searching out the coolest clothes to go clubbing with my gay best friend.

While my fellow ex-pat Brits loved nothing more than seeking out the cheapest beer in the lowest dives Brussels had to offer, we would perch ourselves on the banquettes of the Imaginaire bar, drink violently green Pisang Ambon and watch the BCBG bon ton of Brussels party the night away. There were no drinking regulations, no closing times and although I had my fair share of over indulgence, there was none of the binge drinking culture that so plagues British cities.

I still recall teenage nights spent clubbing all evening, then leaving in the early hours to go and drink espresso at 5am in the city bars that were still buzzing at that time of the morning. The bars of my youth were nothing like the pubs my Brit contemporaries grew up with. Pubs, it seems to me, are designed to get drunk in. They are also segregated into teenage pubs where the landlord turns a blind eye to underage boozers, old man pubs were sodden lushes prop up the bar and bore for England, country pubs with their blazing log fires and ploughmans lunches, gastropubs and trendy pubs that cater, respectively, for foodies and young professionals bent on getting off with each other. Family pubs are to me a misnomer, I have no desire to entertain my children in a temple to getting bladdered.

Continental bars on the other hand are venerable institutions that are as happy to serve a slice of cake and a shot of ink black coffee to a matron in a sleek fur coat, as to serve a group of young men sweating pitchers of beer or a family group a platter of cheese and a round of soft drinks. Grandmothers rub shoulders with teenagers and no one gets noticeably drunk. It is far more civilised and my return to England and its culture of the youth disappearing off to scabby pubs to get pissed was a bit of a shock to the system.

However, I digress, the real point of my post was how much I loved living in a city. How the buzz of its cosmopolitan culture was my life blood. My bedroom faced onto a busy square and I was lulled to sleep by the clash of deliveries to the restaurants and bars below, the rumble of the night buses on the cobbled streets, the yells of football fans driving around the city to celebrate a home win. Every year the students from the local universities used to parade through the streets throwing eggs and flour at everyone who got in their way, I would hang from my bedroom window to watch their messy progress. There is a famous jazz festival that is held each May across the city and the strains of the bands floated up through my window, but all this bustle and noise was a lullaby and I couldn't fall asleep without its muted cacophony.

When I moved back to England it took my three years to get to London. I hated every moment of those years of excile from the city and made every excuse to travel to the capital. Arriving in town never failed to infuse me with a buzz of excitement. When I used to take the train and boat in pre-Eurostar days, arriving in the arched hallways of Victoria and breathing in that dirty city air would fill me with a thrilling fizz of adrenaline. I would dive into the warm and fuggy embrace of the tube to emerge in Oxford Street or on the Kings Road, Camden Town or the elegance of the Embankment aching to explore and begin my urban adventure.

I still get that frisson now when I leave my leafy suburban home, hop on the tube at our quaintly old-fashioned station, complete with proper waiting rooms and a fireplace, and emerge 40 minutes later in the filthy heart of my city. Before Christmas there was talk of moving away, but after one day exploring festive London, the glinting Christmas lights strung across Regent's Street, the opulent displays in the windows of Fortnum & Mason, the festooned arches of the Burlington Arcade, I knew I couldn't do it.

I couldn't follow all my friends who have fled the capital in search of better schools, bigger houses, cleaner air. Every time I visit I feel like a little part of me is dying. I am a city girl and I need the shriek of sirens, the stench of exhaust fumes, the crush of a myriad of different nationalities, the perfume of a thousand exotic cuisines, the shimmering plate glass shop windows showing off wares I can never afford, the rush of black taxis and towering red buses, the sliver grey slice of the Thames running between banks lined with City law firms and modernist theatres and galleries. The corner shops that never close, run by refugees who speak broken English, a takeaway that is always five minutes away, pavements clogged with a local paper filled with national news, the dirt, the disorder, the sheer life of a world class city is what drives me.

NVG says she sometimes misses having a job at the heart of it all, and while I revel in the luxury of working from home, I know what she means. I was in town yesterday for a meeting and it reminded me of the camerarderie of work, of the fun we had together in the office. I am not sure I would be keen to go back, as I don't miss the sweaty commuting or the hours of busy work, the office politics or the ineffectual managers, but the excuse to go into the city on a regular basis might almost make up for it.

So a heartfelt thank you from one City girl to another, for reminding me just what I love about living in London.


  1. Thank you so much for the homage - and I'm glad you feel the same.....

    No, I don't really miss the sweaty commuting or office politics either. And there are some things I am absolutely loving about the suburbs - the way you can park anywhere, usually without paying, the nature is that is on my doorstep, the community feeling of a small town where I always bump into people I know in the supermarket. But the City will always have that allure for me too. So I think we'll be joining you back in London when we come back - although sadly probably at the other end of it!

  2. Well it's nearer than New York, though I do hold out hope of coming over before you return volcanic ash, children and finances permitting!

  3. You've got me closing my eyes and breathing in, to see if I can remember the smells. And listening, to see if I can remember the noises.

    I have a big city girl inside me, but also a country girl. I think I always knew the country girl would win out in the end, but I had 11 years of the city girl having her way.

  4. I remember going to the Craven, and Poubelle with you and then walking home from the Grand Place from whichever bar or club we'd been to. Climbing all those stairs to get to your top floor apartment and then collapsing on your bed. It was a different life, but one that I shall forever treasure.