It’s easier to write about a city when you’re not always there. Every return sparks a reminder or a new encounter with an old face and those in turn, as a writer, are your prompts. Your starting point on unravelling something about the city that lives in you as you, yourself, continue to move beyond it. You dip a toe in every so often, but mostly you stand, looking down at the space before you and make sense of the shape that it has made you. When asked where you are from, you have learnt that the language that speeds from an instinctive flick of your tongue is and will probably always be: London. It bemuses some. They had meant country or nationality. They don’t quite catch the London in your accent. But that, in itself, is the very definition of the city.
This is a city where none of your childhood friends are native-British but found their space there. They moulded your accent into global intonations. You grow-up interrogated as to your roots. You do not sound London-enough. For a while this bothered you. There is a competitive edge that takes root in Londoners. We compare zones to establish who amongst us is the “most London”. A hierarchy is asserted. We are so desperate to be identified in terms of our proximity to skyscrapers, train links and the number of times we’ve been sworn at by cyclists. It is a possessiveness. We like the way it makes people roll their eyes when we introduce ourselves. The buzz of excitement elicited from that one word. Here, we are not British. Nor is it good enough to chalk it up to “Southern”. This is a city that makes you intoxicatingly, and only, London.
This is a city where that has varying interpretations. That fluidity of experience is the reason why you are happy to lose points in the London-competition. It is a city where you had not one, but three mothers, on the top floor of that council building in South West London. A city where one of those mothers catches your arm on the bus, on a last minute, unannounced drop by, uncertain for a split second that it was indeed her little London-girl. We build small pockets of home in this vast bubble of culture and movement. Then we take those pockets out with us to compare over a pint. To an extent, this is a modern form of marking our territory: we exist here. To a greater extent, we are expressing our wonder aloud that, in a city so giant and simultaneously compact, it is still possible to build something that is completely our own.
This is a city where you may not always live. On your last return, you recall the conversation with your Uber driver. His surprise at your openness to talk, spurred on by the need to tell someone how good it felt to be back. But it is in your bones to move: that is how London raised you. This is when you will realise that the city is possessive of you too. On the streets of Valencia, you will drum your fingers unconsciously, vibrating with nervous energy as your feet are forced into a sluggish stride. In Padova, you will struggle to comprehend the reluctance to wander through the squares on winter evenings. Fascinated by how life retreats behind walls as the cold returns and rain excuses early ends to work days. You find yourself at a rooftop party. It’s 2am and you are surrounded by conversations in languages you don’t understand. Smoke in your lungs, someone will ask you where you are from. The possessiveness will rise. Internal skyscrapers, extending upwards amidst the grey. The city will answer for you, swift and assertive: London.