I moved to London during the twenty-first’s century Big Freeze, although the name came after. Back then it was simply December 2009, and when the first snow settled in Peckham a month later I absorbed it like water, the way I had already absorbed parts of London; the stale air of commute, the mice skittering like marbles behind the skirting boards at night, the single bed in the study of a friend of a friend.
My view of London, from that room, was of its sky. Although the room was on the ground floor, the only window was a skylight pointing up at grey, cotton-wool air that yawned over the city. On weekdays my alarm woke me up at 7am; on weekends the light slipped into my room like milk into weak tea. One Saturday when I opened my eyes to darkness the clock read midday. Three inches of snow had fallen overnight and rested thickly on the skylight. As they melted, the light dripped in.
That winter I learned London with my feet. When the trains that normally took me to London Bridge were cancelled, I told the company for which I was interning that I wouldn’t make it to work. They were a big publishing house, paying me £50 in one large red note each week, a note spent on train fare and root vegetables. On my day off I walked slowly through powdery streets to Peckham library, and then west to Camberwell. At night on my way home I found new routes through the backstreets of Dulwich and Nunhead, sliding down the centre of glittering and empty roads.
In her essay “Sebald in the City” on the writer W. G. Sebald, Gillian Beer notes how the view of cities changes for inhabitants and incomers:
“For the inhabitant the city is largely local, focussed in nearby streets and in the invisible presences of buildings and people who once were in those streets […] For the incomer, on the other hand, cities are received as a series of impressions disjunct, with occasional pinpoint places intensely realised, jostling each other in no particular order.”
Despite living for seven years in London, I never felt like an inhabitant. The city remained at “pinpoint places intensely realised.” Sky, seen prismed through ice. Small bursts of breath in the shadows. I left that first room after six months; I left the next room six after that. In seven years I lived in seven buildings. I was never local.
In Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film London, the city’s identity is regularly mused upon by the unseen Robinson, his words reported to us by an unnamed narrator. London is deemed “unsociable”, “too private”, too “absent” to know. My own restlessness felt matched by a city that had 119 new 20-storey buildings proposed between 2015 and 2016, where the skyline seen from Telegraph Hill formed a shifting erratic heartbeat. Shop ownership changed rapidly, pop-ups popped up and stayed. Last week, returning to my Lewisham home after a month away, I wasn’t viewing the “invisible presences of buildings and people who were once in those streets” so much as searching for my own remembered path around its roundabout roadwork labyrinth, and wondering where it had gone.
During the last two years in London I studied for an MA Wild Writing, part-time, at the University of Essex. Twice weekly I took the train out of London from Liverpool Street to Wivenhoe, and walked the two-mile path along the River Colne to campus. In autumn I saw estuarine mud begin to shimmer through trees as leaves fell and the waders appeared, heard the surety of spring in nightingale song, watched migrant hawkers drift through the sticky dregs of summer. “To be recognised and accepted by a peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order,” wrote J. A. Baker in his 1967 work of nature writing, The Peregrine. Despite working for the Chelmsford branch of the AA, Baker could not drive and travelled everywhere by bicycle. The Peregrine’s concern with pesticides may have affected the whole of the UK in the late 1960s, but it is a local text. Baker had a patch, and knew it well.
In a few days I move from London to Colchester; from city to town. After that first, white winter, I never tried again to know London so hard by feet. I found Time Out, the TfL website, friends directing me to locations they knew. I moved mutely between pinpoint places. I learned the streets from smeared bus windows, or not at all, from underground carriages where the map is geographical fiction. I never had another skylight, shunting instead between windows that looked onto other windows. But my final room in Lewisham is at the top of a three storey flat. Taking the stairs up from the bedroom leads past glossy terracotta tiles to a door. When you pull back the bolts it sounds like horses kicking. When you step out on to the roof and look up, everything is sky.