8A Stock Orchard Crescent, London N7
On my first night living in London, I slept in a garden while a light rain fell. I lay on my backpack to keep me off the cold concrete pathway. I have tried, on numerous occasions, to write about why I came to spend my first night in London sleeping rough, imagining it would make an amusing anecdote with which to open an essay such as this, or inform a lightly fictionalised scene in some future novel. But the results have always been so convoluted, the convergence of factors that led me to sleep in the garden, and not in the bed I could see through the basement window, so tediously complex, that I have given up attempting to explain it, and present you instead with the bald image: me, at twenty-six years old, lying in a garden in the rainy dark, cursing everything.
An addendum, which I also offer without explication: in the early morning, I awoke, got to my feet, and without hesitation retrieved the house-key from where it had been waiting for me all along, beneath a certain tile. I let myself in the side gate, through the back door, and into the appallingly filthy house I was to sublet from my friend S. Only a little dog named Henry was there to greet me. I soon fell in love with Henry, or at least grew as attached to him as I have ever been to any other creature, excluding four or five human beings.
On my first day in the house I walked around to Morrison’s supermarket on the Holloway Road, where no one smiled and all the races converged in mutual hatred and mistrust. When I got back, I cleared off the desk in my bedroom and wrote the first lines of a novel that would take me nearly five years to finish.
A few weeks later, B, my girlfriend at the time, came to visit from the States. During her stay, she wrote a poem entitled ‘8A Stock Orchard Crescent’. In the poem, she and I fought acidly, and we stormed off in contrary directions along a dark road on an October evening, but there was some kind of redemption, or maybe one of us learned something, because after all it was a poem.
39 Eade Road, London N4 1DJ
When S, the friend I was subletting from, returned home, I moved into the first, cheapest place I could find. This was a mistake—you should always view at least ten houses before moving. The room I took really was desperately cheap. In London, even horrid flats cost absurd amounts of money to rent: if a place is being let for a pittance, there is a reason for it. The house I moved into was on a quiet street near Finsbury Park. I shared it with eight other people. My room was tiny—it was one of the few rooms I’ve ever seen that lived up (i.e. lived down) to the epithet ‘box room’: it really felt as if I were living in a box. Four of my housemates were Bulgarian: two couples. It wasn’t me who came up with the sobriquet, ‘the Vulgarians’, but neither did I discourage its usage. Around dinnertime the kitchen would start getting crowded, the bottle of rakia would appear, and then the genocidal folk songs would begin in earnest. These were translated for me, grinningly and with slaps on the back, by an interpreter confident that I would approve of the sentiments expressed. I remember one song in particular: a boisterous chant about a tank commander who drove his vehicle headlong into a camp full of gypsies.
Things did not end well between the Bulgarians and me: there were death-threats and stand-offs; a bread-knife was brandished. I came to loathe them, and they me, with an intensity I have rarely experienced. Ivajlo, one of the Bulgarians, had no job but was an ardent consumer of hard-house music and weed. He was a DJ, except all his DJing was done in his bedroom, and the only people who could hear what he played—who could not but hear what he played—were his housemates, one of whom—me—was trying to write a novel. Ours was a cramped and thin-walled house, and the music that Ivajlo blasted every day from morning until evening did not make for an attractive living situation, nor even a liveable one. I was working at a language school in Bayswater, beside Hyde Park, on the other side of the city. In order not to let the teaching work interfere unduly with the writing of my novel, I taught only one class per day. It took me almost as long, and twice as much energy, to cycle to and from the school as it did to teach the class. When I got home around noon, I would eat something, then doze on the couch for a few minutes (my exhaustion won out over the pounding beats). Refreshed, I would fix a flask of coffee and cycle to Stamford Hill Library, where I would spend the rest of the day writing.
B came to stay in the summer. Almost a year had passed since we’d been together last. I decided that this was no house to host a lady.
Flat 97, Woolridge Way Tower Blocks, Loddiges Road, London E8
My friend Roy and his French girlfriend Nancy were leaving town for a while, so they let B and me mind their flat. It was a council flat in a high-rise block off Mare Street, up on the fourth floor. Roy and Nancy were subletting from a man who I only ever heard referred to as Peter Pan. He was long-term unemployed, terminally ill, possibly had some mental or physical disability, and had lately gone to live in Thailand for a year, minimum. Strictly speaking, it was illegal for Peter Pan to sublet his council flat, but it’s a common practice, and there was no other way he could have got to Thailand without losing it. I never met Peter Pan, but I did see a photo of him on an ID card Roy showed me. He was in his late fifties, with long, stringy hair. Periodically he sent Roy emails from Bangkok updating him on the drugs he was taking—copious—and the girls he was having sex with, most of whom seemed to be prostitutes. He had gone to Thailand in the awareness of his impending death, with the frank intention of enjoying a prolonged orgy of sex and drugs; this seemed then and still seems to me a reasonable course of action. I don’t know whether Peter Pan is still alive, or if he ever came back from Thailand.
B and I stayed at the flat for a few weeks. The rear balcony looked onto a courtyard that was closed in on four sides by tower blocks. Children played in the courtyard throughout the day. Perched halfway up the side of each block was a motion-sensing camera that whirred about from morning till night, always trained on the courtyard but changing direction ceaselessly, as if suffering from ADHD or undergoing psychic implosion. By this time, I had got through a couple of drafts of my novel and was teaching at a school in Islington, a more reasonable distance from home. Rejection letters were coming in at a steady pace. B flew to Boston to begin an MFA in poetry—we planned to reunite in the winter—and I moved into a house in Hackney.
58 Narford Road, London E5 8RD
I’ve just used Google Maps to street-view the house where I lived for a couple of years, just down from Stoke Newington High Street and the sleazy basement nightclubs of Dalston. The street-view photos were taken in 2012, while I was living there: the window of the front room is still boarded up—we never got around to sorting that out—and a clutter of bins and buckets fill the strip of cement we had for a front garden. My housemates were Damon, a Londoner in his mid-thirties who managed the parks in the area, and Garry, a permanently stoned Mancunian and recovering alcoholic in his forties, who rarely left his basement room when he wasn’t working (his job was to sit outside shopping centres and persuade people to set up standing orders for the World Wildlife Federation). When Garry moved out, he was replaced by Laure, a young gay woman from Luxembourg, who was even more reclusive—and, to me, more intriguing—than her predecessor. I became friends with Damon: we bonded over a shared fondness for recreational drug abuse. When B came to stay for a few weeks after finishing her Masters, however, I was judged to be acting unfairly by bringing an extra person under the roof. The situation soured— Damon and Laure turned against me. Then summer came and we made up, sitting out in the vine-strewn back garden with our shirts off, drinking cans. I went out one night to a Dalston club with Laure; I was high and it felt a little awkward because I think she thought I fancied her, which I did, in spite of the obvious. Then I flew to San Francisco, chasing after B, hoping to make it work, or if nothing else, to see what it was like to live in California for a while.
109 South End Close, London NW3 2RE
The following winter, B and I moved back to London, into a fifth floor flat in Hampstead, by the Heath. Once again we were subletting less than legally— this time from an American in his sixties named Erwin who had written a book on Jack the Ripper, and his partner Raquel, a graphic novelist. The couple were also booksellers, with a stall on Hampstead High Street, and the cosy, cave-like flat was crammed with books. Not only was each room the repository for hundreds of books (some rooms had nothing but books in them), but the narrow hallway was lined on both sides with stacks of books that reached to the ceiling. The flat afforded views of the London skyline. Helpfully, a pair of binoculars had been left in two of the rooms. I got into the habit of lurking by the window in the evenings with the lights off, Tindersticks or Duke Ellington playing on the stereo, and peering at the activities taking place behind the windows of other blocks, or at the lit-up skyscrapers of the City or Canary Wharf, thinking like a terrorist.
Three and a half years had passed since I had written the first lines of my novel. I had amassed many, sometimes reluctant rejection letters, and been invited for meetings with publishers who changed their minds at the last moment (‘Too bleak, too misanthropic, too negative,’ they said. ‘You don’t know the half of it,’ I thought). My short fiction had begun to get published, however, and I was starting to achieve, if not a name for myself, at least a modicum more visibility than I’d possessed during the preceding years of total obscurity.
B’s parents had been against her moving back to the UK with me, and against our planned marriage, and against my very existence, or so I came to think (the same might be said of any number of the fleeting figures who populate this story). We never did get married: at the end of her six-month visa, with Erwin and Raquel about to move back into the Hampstead flat, B returned to the US. There have been a few emails, but I haven’t spoken to her since.
20b Finsbury Park Road, London N4 2JZ
For my last ten days living in London, I stayed at the current flat of S, the friend in whose garden I had slept on my first night in the city, four years previously. For reasons that are too complex to go into here, S and I are no longer speaking. Nor does he still live in London. Most of the friends I knew in those years have moved on—to Hong Kong, Central America, Australia, the US, Ireland, France. On my last night at S’s place, we stayed up very late, drinking whiskey and listening to the album we had crafted together over the past three years, recently finished. I slept for an hour or two, woke hungover, and was lucky not to miss the train that took me away from the city, across the English and Welsh countryside, to the ferry-port at Holyhead. There, I boarded the Ulysses and sailed to Dublin. While crossing the Irish Sea, I finished a short story I’d begun the day after B left London, about a writer who returns to Dublin—on the Ulysses—after a long time away, wondering if he’s just exchanging one loneliness for another.
It is difficult, when we look back on certain periods of our lives—the years we spent living in London, for instance, in our twenties, writing a book and loving as much as we knew how to—not to fall into the trap of romanticism and nostalgia. Even while I lived in London, though, I romanticised the city and the life I lived there; or rather, I knew it was a beautiful, romantic time of life, and that, like youth itself, the circumstances that had come so magically together would never be repeated, and that one day I would miss those years, the limitlessness of it all. I also knew, or suspected, that romanticism serves another purpose: it puts a veneer on the squalor and disorder of our days, relieving us of having to look too squarely at the sadness underlying them, and the pain we cause ourselves and others—though such knowledge does creep in, inevitably, at the frayed end of some weekend-long session, in the eerie chemical silence. I haven’t been back to London since I lived there, but I don’t need Heraclitus to remind me that you can’t step into the same city twice. The London where I lived no longer exists, any more than a dream exists upon awakening—a dream in which you were happy, in which life lived up to its promise.