Getting out of the city has always been a vital part of being able to live in the city, and whenever I can feel my mind wandering towards rural fantasies it is almost always as a consequence of not having followed this advice-to-self. Going to Wendover yesterday was a much-needed exile from the beloved Big Smoke, and a timely reminder of how much of England is still a vast expanse of nature, something it is all too easy forget in the teeming confines of a large city. The other reminder was that when we visit people in the country, “going for a walk” normally requires a drive of some duration before the walk itself can begin- a duration of, say, roughly, about the same length of time it takes to get out of London and in to the tranquility of the countryside itself. This, of course, is an enormously satisfying piece of rationalisation for living in the madness of the capital and not upping sticks- who has sticks in the metropolis?- and moving next door to River Cottage.
It was also very reassuring to hear someone tell me that the great Roman letter-writer Pliny complained vociferously about the endless chatter from the middle-classes about the respective merits of staying in Rome, or selling up and moving to a much larger villa in Tuscany: “Of course, you’ll have about three times the space you get in Rome and wonderful for the kids and all that, but you’ll find more culture in a strawberry yoghurt than you’ll get in Montalcino. Plus the locals all talk funny, and have sex with their livestock etc.” Gratifying indeed to know this dilemma has being going on for at least two thousand years. (At least two thousand;”I mean, I like living in a cave and it suits me for work, but is it any place to bring a kid up? Jeremy bought a new wheel yesterday, I don’t how we’re going to afford it….”)
I keep telling myself I’ve got over this dilemma but it only takes one person to tell me they’ve moved out and I get all tangled up in notions of quality of life again. Someone told me recently they were moving to Eastbourne, and as soon as they started eulogising about the sea, I felt a pang for rural living, and waking up to fresh air and gazing across the horizon. I mean, this is madness- Eastbourne is not so much God’s waiting room as the slab on which he lays the cadavers out, and I know this; I’ve been there on tour and been deafened by an audience of 500 people, all with their hearing aids set to stun, drowning out a full PA system whilst all simultaneously shuffling in their seats trying to work out where they are/why they are there/who they are/where the toilets are and where’s the nice man who said they could get an ice-cream at the interval. And yet a brief conversation with a potential London emigrant can convince me that a better quality of life is to be had in this geriatric melting-pot. It was only the news that they were now deciding to move back to London that calmed me down.
Deep down I know I couldn’t leave, and that London is a spiritual home- I’ve known since the first time I came here as a small boy that this was the only place I wanted to live in. It’s not for everyone, of course, but I have put a lot of effort into making this my “home-town”, and take a lot of pleasure in what the capital provides. All the things that you will be told you can’t have in London are there for the taking- knowing your neighbours, being recognised as regular and valued customers in your favourite store, experiencing the kindness of strangers. These things can take more time in the city, for a very obvious reason- there are so many thousands more of us, and creating space for your presence to be acknowledged requires a bit more effort, but it can still be done all the same. Then you have the luxury of a sense of community, but a community that is constantly being added to by new people, bringing with them new experiences and new ways of being. The world passes by your doorstep when you live in this great city, and you can engage with it and discover things you could never have imagined or contemplated. People will come and go, but not all of them, not all at the same time, and the backdrop to your life really is an ever-changing and exotic landscape.
There, I’ve convinced myself all over again.