By: Linda Lloyd
Some journeys take you somewhere else, somewhere new forever. When you launch yourself off that starting block, you have no idea whether it’s a sprint or a marathon, or where you’ll end up. In 1981 I was living in the sub-arctic climate of the unemployed North East of England. In the same year, Norman Tebbit, a Conservative politician depicted by the satirical TV show Spitting Image as a leatherclad, skinhead bootboy, and described by the leader of the Labour opposition as a ‘semi-house-trained polecat’, famously implied that the solution to being unemployed was to get on your bike and look for work until you found it. A strange source of inspiration for migrating from Newcastle to London, but that’s another thing you never know – where inspiration will strike from.
In the winter of that same year, the boyfriend and I emptied our lives out of a hired white van and squeezed them into a bedroom in Southfields, where we spent a few miserable weeks looking for jobs. We were so hungry, I seriously contemplated shoplifting. A criminal record seemed a fair exchange for a box of fish fingers. We passed the time wandering round Wimbledon Common in freezing fog, pretending we were Wombles as we picked litter off the frosty grass and dropped it into bins. It was good karma, we thought – once, we were rewarded with a dropped packet of cheese sandwiches. We sat on a bench and unwrapped them with numb fingers, grateful that we’d found them a good few feet away from the nearest pile of dog crap. Karma went up in my estimation.
We did find jobs, and took day trips to window shop places like Liberty and Hamley’s, wondering if we would ever have enough money in our pockets to go in and buy something. I loved the Paddington Bear teddies, because he had come all the way from darkest Peru with nothing but a suitcase, some marmalade sandwiches and a label round his neck, and he’d found a loving family in a warm, happy home. I was very jealous of anyone who could afford more than a bedsit in London.
Gradually our bedsits got closer to life in the centre. In Kilburn, we drank in Irish pubs and our Italian landlady showed me how to cook pasta properly. She wouldn’t have been so nice if she knew we’d turned the electricity meter on its face to stop the dials going round. There weren’t enough fifty pence pieces in the world to keep that meter satisfied.
Our next move was to Earl’s Court. Our upstairs neighbours yelled at their kids and threw their rubbish out of the window onto the pavement. The police stopped me and my long-haired boyfriend every couple of weeks, making us turn out our pockets and looking disappointed when they weren’t full of illegal substances. The world and his wife descended on the area at regular intervals, massing around the Exhibition Centre, abandoning their 4 x 4’s in the middle of our road. I got spat on once, by an inebriated Young Farmer. There was a small square of manicured grass and trees, surrounded by black iron railings and a padlocked gate. Rental tenants weren’t privileged with access. The landlady ripped us off over the deposit. I began to get panic attacks.
The only time I’d been in London before trying to make it my home was to see the sights. I had headed for the first place I’d heard of, marveling at the simplicity – all I had to do was buy a ticket, navigate the underground system and up I popped like a mole from under the pavement, right in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. I was promptly whacked on the head by the noise, the smell, the crowds bashing around, the dirt, and the traffic. Stunned, I gazed at the massive billboards, the shops and buildings huddled together like bad teeth. The diesel engines of the black cabs and the double-decker red buses chugged and spluttered their way past the statue of Eros, who was poised on one foot, taking aim with his bow and arrow. It was all smaller, dirtier and smellier than I’d imagined it, but so familiar it was like being in a living postcard, and the air was laden with the aromas of a huge city full of a hundred cuisines. A couple stopped me and asked for directions. We had a smiley, gesticulating conversation involving my mini-map and schoolgirl German. I felt truly cosmopolitan. I could do this. All I needed was a map and a foreign language. Eros had shot true: I was in love and London was my Valentine.
But in the 80s, I desperately missed the pink, fluffy cloud that Eros had wrapped me in all that time ago. I tried to get the feeling back. I went to Regent’s Park, struggling to find a bit of green to sit on. I saw bands at Hammersmith Odeon and Wembley Stadium, queueing for hours to buy an exorbitantly priced can of Coke, and went to the free museums and art galleries, straining to see from the backs of crowds four and five deep. At Camden Market I learned to beware of pickpockets, and tourists who suddenly halted right in front of me as if they wanted me to smash my face into their mountainous backpacks. The one time I ventured out to see the Christmas lights turned on in Regent Street, I narrowly avoided injuries from being crushed when the police used their horses to broadside the crowds back onto the pavements.
My rose-tinted glasses were smashed. I was living in a gigantic pinball machine, battered from bedsit to bedsit, temp job to temp job, exhausted by commuting in filthy tube trains and draughty tunnels, where I’d seen mice and cockroaches scraping a living between the electric rails. I knew how they felt. I became claustrophobic and started walking to work, but it was just as bad above ground. I felt small and vulnerable as the traffic roared along Talgarth Road, the most polluted road in the city.
London was too full of people and too expensive. I wanted out, but by the time we’d paid our bills, there was nothing left. Sometimes you have to be at the end of your tether before the karma gods notice and give you a break.
Suddenly, things went right.
We were managing to afford a clean, attractive, ground floor studio in Swiss Cottage, and I had a shiny job in a shiny office near Scotland Yard. My boss asked me to stand in for him entertaining a Dutch client and his wife. I was ferried in a limousine with the driver pointing out the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Tower Bridge to the visitors. We saw Cats on roller skates, and dined in Langan’s Brasserie, celebrity spotting. I saw someone buy a bottle of champagne for the same price as a week’s rent. After dropping the happy clients off, the limo driver did me a deal. I could sit in the front if he could take off his cap. We drove around for a while, just because we could, enjoying the empty streets: the reflections on the river, the lamp-lit architecture, the swoop of the Hammersmith Flyover. That night, chatting quietly in a limousine, laughing at the strangeness of folk and agreeing that the rich could keep it, the city regained some of its charm. Eros twinkled hopefully and I conceded that London and I could still have our moments.
I liked the place in Swiss Cottage. It became a refuge, despite sharing a bathroom with an argumentative couple, and the public phone in the communal hall ringing day and night from all corners of the world. It was a lovely area to wander around; there were trees and gardens. We had a bay window, a moulded plaster ceiling and a decent carpet. Life was good.
Then the karma gods gave the wheel of fortune another spin.
The Landlord needed us to move out. His mother had died and he had to sell up to pay off taxes. The other tenants told us they weren’t moving. I checked it out with the Citizens Advice Bureau.
After a glance through the rental agreement, the quiet, bespectacled adviser smiled.
“Either your Landlord is stupid or he’s hoping you are. You have a sitting tenancy. If he wants you out, he’s going to have to make it worth your while.”
We couldn’t believe our luck. For a while, The Landlord’s sister played bad cop, calling on us at stupid o’clock in the mornings to put the pressure on. We were burgled and some jewellery was stolen, but we stuck it out. Finally The Landlord came round for a chat. We made him a cup of tea and he asked us what we wanted. We mentioned a heroic sum of money and he offered us a quarter of that. We met half-way.
Suddenly, he was all smiles.
“If you were my kids, I’d want you to use that money wisely,” he told us. “Get your feet on the property ladder. I’ll put the money in trust with a solicitor. Find yourselves a place to buy. When it’s time to pay the deposit, the solicitor will release it to the mortgagee.”
“All well and good,” said the brave new me, “but where are we going to live while we look for a place to buy?”
“I’ve got an unfurnished flat standing empty in Belsize Park. You can have that for free. Take the bed and whatever else you need, I’m only going to get rid of it otherwise.”
Belsize Park sounded lofty and airy, but the place was a mouldy basement with rats in the garden. I talked to my new friend The Landlord and told him about the fridge having been switched off months before with a raw chicken still inside it. He told us to dump the bio-hazard in the garden, where it was hidden by the long grass. Even the rats steered clear of it.
But that was only for a few weeks, until we found a flat in Northolt, far enough out of London to have luxuries like a swimming pool and fresh air, and Central Line trains that weren’t already packed when they arrived at the platform. Finally, after seven years of running, we had a home.
I’m over London, though it hasn’t noticed. It was a one-way thing all along. I’ve flirted with other cities. The Eye of Horus gave me a cheeky wink in Alexandria. But one journey’s end is the beginning of a new one.
So here’s my advice for running marathons: just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and appease the karma gods as much as you can along the way.