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Life in the big smoke

The shipwreck at the studio

When Gerry and I moved to Thames Side Studios we often had to pinch ourselves. It had everything we had been looking for. It’s right next to the Thames, there’s a great community of artists and makers, a print-studio, an on-site sauna and the site has its very own shipwreck.

I remember walking around the place on a sweltering day in July several months before we knew we’d suddenly get kicked out of Hoxton, looking at the river and the shipwreck thinking, “wow, imagine working at a place like this”.

And now we’ve been here for two years. When it’s not too cold outside we take mugs of tea and stand on the sea wall, looking at the planes taking off from City Airport, the cormorants fishing in the river, the dredgers humming along and the occasional seal swimming by.

The shipwreck is still there, hosting an impressive colony of pigeons. When we moved in she used to float, now she sits on the riverbed at high tide like a stubborn old lady, the water lapping over her deck.

The man who owns her occasionally cycles in and uses an improvised drawbridge to get on board. Two years ago we still heard a generator whirring somewhere at the back. A year ago I spotted a group of people in camo-gear playing paintball on the ferry. Now there just seems to be more and more pigeons.

Once the Royal Iris hosted the Queen and the Beatles on trips across the Mersey. People at the studio have told me visitors from Liverpool have stood on the sea wall crying over the state of her now.

The Royal Iris sailed on the Mersey for 40 years and was decommissioned in the 90s. She came to London in 2002. The new owner found a spot for her in Woolwich and had planned on turning her into a floating nightclub.  It appears not much has happened since.

Although I’m told she once managed to escape, floating out with the tide. After that they cut out her engines and left a hole in her hull. Perhaps she too sits there watching the planes.

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.