October 19, 2018
I never mean to, but I always end up living in east-facing bedrooms, like the one I grew up in, at the opposite end of this city. My cream-coloured curtains let the sunshine in, but even without the morning light I’d be out of bed.
I became a freelancer in May this year, partly because I was made redundant from a staff job, but mainly because I was finally ready. The change energised me. It’s almost as though I can’t find enough hours in the day to do all the things I dream up.
It was another silent morning, oddly enough for a London flat, but this one is set back from the road—then—there he was, the cockerel. He started crowing, exactly on time. My flat’s on a council estate, and the family across the path from us has the cockerel, plus hens and rabbits, in their front garden. I’d been documenting on Instagram the growth of a litter of baby rabbits who were born back in spring, but they’ve been moved somewhere warmer. I missed the way they’d rush to the bars of the hutch when they saw me, knowing I was the giver of tiny green leaves that I picked from the edge of their garden, which caused the four tiny fluffballs to climb over each other to eat from my fingers.
On most days I go to the British Library in King’s Cross to work. I took a bus down Abbey Road, with the recording studio and the iconic road crossing where fans put themselves in danger every day. I got off at Baker Street and walked past the station’s lost property office, with a Paddington Bear in the window, and then past various Sherlock-Holmes-related establishments. My coat was a bit too warm. I got on another bus that drove past Madame Tussaud’s, then inched along the long, long line of tourists waiting to get in, to see the uncanny wax realisations of their fantasies about fame. In three decades, I’ve only visited once.
The British Library is housed inside a young building by this city’s standards—it opened in 1998. The Victorian Gothic architecture of King’s Cross St Pancras station looms over it, promising day trips to the North, or Paris, or Hogwarts.
One of the best things I’ve bought for myself this year is membership to the library, which means I can sit in a secret, hidden area. So, I’ve got to know the regulars. On my way upstairs, I walked past university students clinging on to any space they could find, some even standing up to tap on laptops at high tables, because the uncomfortably high chair had been taken. I wondered how awful their other options must be if they’re willing to put up with that.
I didn’t go to university in London, but some of my friends did, and a few of them had to share tiny bedrooms with strangers. The rooms weren’t originally intended for two people, they could be as small as the width of three single beds—two beds and a space to get out of bed. I imagined that these students were here to escape the enforced intimacy at home.
I went up to the second floor, and looked back at the view across the library—books and people as far as the eye could see. Someone told me about 15 years ago that I’d probably spent enough time in dusty old libraries in my life, and that person was both wrong and right.
I got my seat and my second coffee of the day. Across the room, there was a regular—“Sheldon” from The Big Bang Theory. I’ve never watched it, but it seems the lead character in that show (I guess?) visits the members’ area of the British Library at a near-daily frequency. He was one of the only people in there under 50 years of age without a laptop and on that day, like every day, he was scribbling into a notebook. He wears the same outfit each time I see him, too. Like a sitcom character. Later, I heard him on the phone and he had a very passable English accent. Well, he is an actor.
There are a number of retirement-aged people who spend the day in the library in very analogue ways. There’s one elderly man who brings in a plastic shopping bag of his belongings, which are mainly books. I worry about him a bit, because every time I see him, he looks around wide-eyed, as though he’s visiting for the first time, and he’s not sure if he’s allowed in here.
He was there on that Friday afternoon, packing and unpacking his bag. Maybe being around people who are working—albeit each in their own world bordered by noise-cancelling headphones and the work they get done around the edges of the internet’s temptations—feels comforting. Will retirement look like this for me?
My flatmate texted me at 3:30 p.m. She’d finished her shift, and the sunshine lured her to Primrose Hill, which is on the way home. I headed out to meet her and watch my last sunset from up there this year, because they’ll soon start happening too early in the day.
As a compromise for bailing on my work early, I walked along the Regent’s Canal, so at least I got some exercise. The waterway exists one level beneath London. It’s where the constant traffic noise fades to a whisper, and the walkers, joggers, and cyclists sharing the damp narrow towpath are all incredibly polite to each other. Every fifth or sixth step on the towpath a flagstone dipped and I heard a little splash, a reminder that the water’s everywhere. London was built on a floodplain, and that’ll probably be its downfall in the end.
This section of the canal winds past my early-to-mid 20s. Turning east from King’s Cross, it heads to, and under, Islington, where I lived during those first stumbling adult years away from the house I grew up in. Going west, as I did that day, the canal climbs north through Camden: past the pubs that Amy Winehouse hid from her fame in, through the market—where I worked for half a decade—and ending up at Camden Lock. I surfaced again a few exits after that, at the floating Chinese restaurant, just before the canal flows into London Zoo.
The view over London from Primrose Hill is captivating. It’s the equal and opposite of the one from Greenwich Observatory on the other side of the Thames, where I lived last year. I met my flatmate at the top, finding her among all the people and dogs milling around. If you’re gazing at the skyline from the top of the hill, the sunset happens behind you, hidden by the trees. Instead, you get to watch daytime London fade from view, then see the nighttime version wake up, neon light by neon light. You could watch the same thing happen every day, only it never really happens the same way twice, and you’re never really the same person twice.
When the sun finally gave up, it was suddenly so cold. We took in the fact that we were standing on a dark hill in the Northern Hemisphere, in the last few weeks of the year. Everyone made the descent very quickly. We just wanted to be in the pub. It was time for a cheeky drink.
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