Menu

Life in the big smoke

How having a flu made me rediscover the wisdom of Gandalf

At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.

We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.

I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.

Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.

What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.

Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.

11129657734_685a0d39ab_z

The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.

His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.

Some thoughts about leaving the city and moving to the suburbs

In November Gerry and I moved from north London to the south east. We left an apartment nestled between a busy train line and one of the main arteries funnelling cars into the city from the north. We moved to a house in the suburbs.

Our north London was mostly a busy, noisy place. There was a Whole Foods store around the corner when we moved to the area and during our five years there the powers of gentrification brought a Foxtons estate agent, a Foxlow restaurant, several yoga studios, pubs full of men with beards and coffee shops charging three pounds for a black coffee.

It’s now the only place in London where you can get the pizza mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love. There is also a shop selling sticks. The rents shot up and I started feeling slightly self-conscious going to the shops in an old hoodie and my tired jeans, everyone else looked amazing, the odd celebrity walked down the street.

11253569434_1a5d448a73_o

I was glad to leave, but I didn’t really understand that moving would have a physical impact on me. I had been tense, bracing myself for some unknown disaster, my neck ached, trains interrupted my thoughts, the planes overhead were so common I hardly heard them, my shoulders crept up, my breath was getting stuck in my throat.

We now live on the slopes of the second highest hill in London. To the north is the river, to the south and east two ancient woodlands. After a fifteen minute walk I can be in a forest, a real forest. We have a garden and we’ve spent time digging into the earth, revealing worms, sending beetles and spiders scuttling away. I’m breathing more deeply, I feel less anxious. There is silence here.

11104004624_72d2ca9e63_o

I’ve been reading about how living in cities affect how we feel. A while ago I decided to explore some more of south London and ended up in a bookshop in Greenwhich where I picked up “Headspace – The Psychology of City Living” by psychiatrist Paul Keedwell. The book cites several studies about how noisy, polluted urban living can make us tried, anxious and unwell.

One study at the University of Munich showed that being exposed to the colour green makes us more creative. Portuguese researchers found that “people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression.”

Another study at the Humbolt University of Berlin looked at how traffic noise, air pollution and lack of green space affect health and showed that the participants who lived in “high burden blocks” had less healthy lifestyles. A study from Helsinki found that “even short visits to an urban park or an urban woodland led to marked stress-relieving effects in city dwellers”.

According to the book there is no need to move away form the city to find relief. Visiting parks and green spaces works just as well, as does exercise. But I have moved and reading about how living nearer green spaces and having a garden is good for you is positive reinforcement for what was a fairly major life decision.

11237211054_029dab3fd1_o

Central London has some of the most polluted streets in the world . I can taste the exhaust fumes in the city now. The street where we live is so quiet I notice when a car goes by.

It’s not all perfect. This part of London is poor. There are fewer restaurants and no shops selling sticks. Instead of having a bus stop outside the front door I have to walk for about twenty minutes to get to a tube station. So I walk more, down and up the hill to the station, looking out over east London on the other side of the river, listening to the birds, looking up at a few bright stars at night. I’m happier. My calves ache from all the walking.

Since moving here I’ve found out that a lot of other Finns have made this part of London their home, perhaps it has something to do with all the trees.

Peeling away the layers

After a week the bed bugs came back. They were a surprise left-over from the previous occupants of the house. The mysterious rash that could have been a bite, the inky spots on the wall in the spare bedroom, the bug we saw scuttling over a pillow on the sofa. None of these things seemed like a problem until a late night Google binge told us they were unmistakeable signs of a bed bug infestation.

It was becoming difficult to sleep. So we decided to rent a steamer and buy bug killing products off Amazon. Gerry tackled the industrial steamer, a blue robot from a seventies science fiction movie. I wore a mask and big gloves and followed him with the bug spray. Then we set off some smoke bombs. A couple of nights passed. No more bites. We thought might have won.

Then they came back and it was time to phone a man with access to more potent poisons and pesticides. The man recommended stripping back the carpets as it was something we’d intended to do anyway. That was last Saturday. A brief conversation over a cup of coffee. “We’ll just take this carpet up”.

The green, sticky mess crumpled in our hands, the rubber fell off the bottom and left mounds of fine sand-coloured dust on the floorboards. We tore up more carpet. More rubber sand. The floor boards were a pale grey underneath. There were gaps and holes, patches and some blackened bits. A mysterious dark shape revealed where a piece of furniture had once stood.

The floorboards clashed horribly with the salmon pink wallpaper. We peeled off a small corner. A big sheet came loose, like a sail catching wind. It felt good. I could almost sense the house shaking off the weight of the years. Another corner, another sheet of wallpaper and then small finicky bits that didn’t seem to want to come off at all.

Gerry used a screwdriver to pry loose one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles. It came off in one go. The next one was a bit more difficult, but he hacked away at it. I kept peeling wallpaper. After a couple of hours the first layer, the one they must have added in the sixties and seventies, was gone.

We found the local dump and drove past HMP Belmarsh, where the UK detained people without charge or trial after 9/11. The road that runs past it is wide and fast. It’s difficult to get a glimpse of the prison. Then there is scrubby industrial wasteland, low warehouses, a large garage full of wrecked cars. This London is a different London.

Back in the house we keep peeling away the layers. We’re now down to the plaster, once painted a dark forest green. The last layer of wallpaper, a yellow geometric pattern with ghostly imprints of large white flowers, is the most difficult to remove. We sponge it down with a mixture of hot water and fabric softener and scrape away at the stubborn bits.

It takes time, the peeling and scraping, but in those moments there is nothing else than the wallpaper. Thoughts of work and worries and the political situation slip away. I can feel the room sighing with relief, the walls can breathe again. The bugs have stayed away for a week. We will keep peeling.

A citizen of nowhere

“Why are you here?”

The man was carrying our belongings into our new house. I had told him I was Finnish. It was a quick and direct question, a sharp icy gust blowing in with the old sideboard and the boxes full of books. He seemed surprised that I had chosen to live in the UK.

He was in his late twenties and from Bulgaria. The older man the company he worked for had teamed him up with for the day was also Bulgarian. Neither of them wanted to stay in the UK. The older man told me his brother was working in Germany. That’s where he was going. “Very money”, he said. “Very money”. The younger man had been in the UK for about a year and was also thinking about leaving. The traffic in London was awful, the money wasn’t great, the city was expensive. Life could be better somewhere else.

So. Why am I here? I was trying to explain it to myself as I unwrapped mugs and placed them in cupboards, uncrumpled tea towels and opened kitchen drawers for the first time. I’m here because I like the UK. I’m here because there is something about London that pulls me back every time I leave. But these are intangibles. They didn’t work as answers to that simple, direct question. “Why are you here?”

I’m here because of work. I’m here because I’m married to a Brit. Those reasons seem too practical, too mundane. The underlying truth is that I’m here because where else would I be. This is my home. This is where I became an adult. This is where my life is. That’s why this whole brexit thing is so exhausting sometimes, because when I woke up on the 23d of June I was no longer equal to most of the other people who call this island their home.

The prime minister Theresa May has refused to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK after brexit. Those who have experienced her punitive policies when she was the home secretary know that there will be no warm, sympathetic or humane treatment of EU-immigrants, there will only be the cold logic of bureaucracy. There will be a box, you will need to fit it, otherwise you’re out.

During May’s time as home secretary the income threshold for people from countries outside the EU who wanted to stay in the UK was raised. Those who want to apply for permanent residency in the UK now have to prove they earn over £35 000 a year. If you’re a freelancer, if you’re self-employed, if you’re a cleaner, a teacher or an artist that will be difficult.

If you’re married to a Brit, the policy means your British partner has to earn over £18 600 a year in order for you to stay in the country. For each child you have your partner needs to earn a couple of thousand pounds more. Over 15 000 children have been separated from one parent or forced to grow up outside the UK because of the rules. Even the right wing paper the Telegraph is critical of this policy. It’s created what they call “Skype families”.

Many EU friends of mine in the UK have applied for this same permanent residency during the last six months. They have had to prove that they’ve lived in the UK for five years, they’ve had to hand over bank statements and bills to the state and they’ve had to account for each and every time they have travelled out of the country during the last five years. In the new year I’m planning to do this too. Because this is my home. But simply saying that isn’t enough anymore. Now I have to prove it.

Image by Eduard Militaru.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.