some things I've learned from living in a small town, and some things a small town has taught me
Pardon the Kate Clanchy pun, but there's some worryingly disturbing similarities here...
Whatever way you look at it Toto, we're not in London anymore.
In April of this year, my family and I - me, the husband, Big and Small, moved to the countryside. The people that live here, don't consider this The Country. This is a town with a bank, and a post office, a pizzeria and an actual real life market - to them, this is practically New York. Whenever I mention the quietness, and the small-town-country-ness of it all, I can hear the physical scoffing. The countryside, they say, is driving to get to a shop. It's sheep in your back garden and hens picking at your fence - and yes, its having a fence. A wooden one with views to green fields and cows grazing lazily. Whatever way you look at it Toto, we're not in London anymore.
That's what makes London so special... It shows you the whole world through 11 different coloured tube lines.
For 21 years, I've been unable to imagine meaningfully living anywhere other than My City. London, in all it's beautiful, filthy, glory was my home. The place I grew up from 18-39. Where I arrived as a green teenager unable to navigate the tube (the first time I went to Waterloo station I couldn't find the exit, so I just went home) and left as something akin to a grown up woman. London was the place I found myself. Where I learned it was ok to dress like I was a 1970s groupie, and bleach my fringe yellow. Where I could see people that looked like me, everywhere, doing everything. Where for the first time ever, I didn't feel like a minority. For years, my sole goal in life was to live somewhere less than a £10 taxi ride from Soho; where I would binge drink and get lost on an almost daily basis. But then marriage and mortgages and kids happened, and my priorities changed. A £10 taxi ride meant no garden, living up three flights of stairs, a buggy chained to the wall in the hallway because it kept getting stolen. We moved to a less fashionable area a bit further out, 15 minutes from the tube, but a real house. A small garden. Neighbours who knew us by name. Even though in the first few weeks, I discovered people liked to shoot up in the tree at end of our cul-de-sac, and the local park was surrounded by drunk men with brown paper bags, I still loved it. It still felt like home. I wanted my children to grow up knowing these were our people, that this was our city. That life was grit and danger as much as it was bouncing around at soft play and drinking babyccinos. That's what makes London so special. It's real. A slice through everything from extreme poverty to extreme wealth. It shows you the whole world through 11 different coloured tube lines.
But as Big started to get older, we knew we had to consider moving. We were out of catchment for pretty much every high school, sat in a weird no-man's land between areas. I found myself fixating on how he'd get to school. The fact that I'd no longer be able (or allowed...) to walk him there. I wanted to live near a school. Really near. Like, next to a school, or on top of it. As someone who grew up in a small town, and travelled hours to get to school every day in our local big city (can anyone, other than a Norfolkian, consider Norwich, big?) - I was worried. How would my then 11-year-old cope with getting across the Holloway Road by himself? Or more importantly, how would other people, not nice people, view him? I knew this was a fear that came from not having experienced it myself. I knew in all honesty, that he'd be fine. That he's a smart, bright, switched on kid. But suddenly, the world I'd run away from - the small town where everybody knows your name, felt familiar and comforting, instead of suffocating and overwhelming.
And so we came to be here. Kent. A big decision made on the weight of a day. A friend had moved here so we came to see a house, more out of curiosity than real intent. I never planned for us to go back for a second visit, but the estate agent was so nice, so non-estate-agenty, and we couldn't find anywhere else we liked, other than the London house who's name we do not speak, whose owner messed us around so much I have since considered tracking him down and killing him. So we came back for a second visit. On the journey here, we discussed how we were never going to buy it. It wasn't London. We weren't ready. On the way home, we made an offer.
Whilst I longed for the comfort of a small town, I also feared its rejection - not just for me, but for my children
Things happen sometimes, for no fathomable reason. It just felt like the right thing to do, as much as it felt like the wrong thing. And my fear of small towns, was as justified, as it was unjustified. I grew up in small seaside town in East Anglia in the 80s and 90s. My dad was an A&E doctor, for years without a permanent job or permanent home, we grew up with an uncertainty my parents kept hidden from us. What I remember vividly, is the feeling of being different. Of sticking out in every scenario. Of people being mean. Of hissing and spitting and staring. I know that things have changed albeit not as much as they should have. That everyone has at least seen a person of colour and understands they exist now. In the 80s, there were truly older people, farmers who'd never left North Norfolk, who'd never seen a person of colour. My prejudice started here. The belief that small towns were somehow a physical embodiment of this person now. A backwards looking, behind the times place where people stared at you, and hated you on sight. So whilst I longed for the comfort of a small town, I also feared its rejection - not just for me this time, but for my children.
Living in a small town has taught me about my own prejudices
And so I came with a slightly heavy heart. With the worry that I was giving up on all the things I loved. On people who accepted you, on anonymity, on showing my children the real world, and not just a cosseted, safe, small-town life. But when I arrived, I found kindness and friends. I found people who smiled at you and said good morning, neighbours that left homemade jam on your doorstep. If this sounds too good to be true - then I found golliwogs and undercover racists too. I found people that spoke of DFL's (down from London's) with disdain and irritation, the undertone being that they were a different kind of person, a less welcome person, probably a liberal, non-Tory, possibly-not-white-type-of-person. But I had to question whether this was any worse than the well meaning PTA member at my children's school in London, who thought I could act as as an ambassador to the non-white mum's at the school, someone to get the Muslim mothers on board - even though I'm not Muslim, and they're not Muslim mothers - just mothers. Like the white PTA mum so desperate to be seen as multicultural and inclusive, while effectively othering me.
I've become one of those people. The ones that think anything outside of London is somehow not enough; as if the world ends outside of the M25
The truth is, living in a small town has taught me about my own prejudices as much its taught me about other peoples. I've become one of those people. The ones that think anything outside of London is somehow not enough; as if the world ends outside of the M25 (which always brings to mind Natasta in the Bridget Jones film, muttering 'does anything work outside of London?'). My assumption that I'd struggle to find 'my people', that if someone didn't vote the same way that I did, they'd automatically be an enemy of my values. People are complex, so much more than the sum of where they were born, or where they choose to live, or how they vote. In short - I've learned of my own small-mindedness. Of the judgements I make, in not accepting people can be kind and decent, without holding the same opinions as I do.
Small town life may not be quite as exciting or energetic as London living; the pace slower, the final time at which you can buy a pint of milk, much, much earlier - but for this London girl, it's been no less satisfying. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I can breathe. Life has slowed down - just as I needed to catch up.
All that said, ask me in a year.
After all, I'm still calling myself a Londoner.