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Leaving the city behind: pressure or progress?

As everyone around her says goodbye to the Big Smoke, Marisa Bate reflects on the city she loves and wonders if she's planning or panicking

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By Marisa Bate on

It’s a total cliché, but it is also absolutely true – people my age (and older) start to ponder what was once entirely inconceivable: leaving behind the city.

My city is London. And, yes, I know there are other truly brilliant cities in this country,  but London is the city I fell in love with right from the start.

I didn’t grow up in London, but I grew up close enough to know it was there. When I was very little, I’d visit my dad in Notting Hill, when someone with as little money as my dad could still live in Notting Hill. Once, he took me to the carnival and we slipped through the noise and the colour of the crowd. I was waist-height and London’s heartbeat was loud and pulsing, a baseline above my head and under my skin. Next came the play scheme – daycare in Victoria Street, where my mum would leave my brother and me when she was working during the summer holidays. We’d get marched down to St James’s Park and workers in suits would smile at us as we stumbled pass in pairs, holding hands. After this came teenage visits to Topshop on Oxford Street or gigs at Shepherd’s Bush. Sometimes my mum would take us to community meetings in Lambeth (something she had to attend for her job) because she wanted us see what life was like outside the Home Counties. On summer evenings in Brixton town hall, we’d hear mothers ask police officers if it was because their son was black that he’d been stopped and searched again. Once, when I was a student, I had travelled up from Brighton to meet my mum for lunch. She’d barely taken a bite of her sandwich before she was whisked back to the office. She felt terrible; I felt dizzyingly proud. For my whole life, London had been a place where things – things I couldn't even imagine – happen; the city was exciting, electric, alive.

The problem here isn’t the city – it’s the pressure; it’s the musical chairs on acid making me panic and plan. 'Just watch your own horse' was one of Oprah’s favourite mantras when she was making her show. That might be easier said when you’re Oprah


But now I’ve entered that awful period in life when everything turns into one fucking massive miserable game of musical chairs. And everyone – because of the nuclear levels of pressure placed on them by parents and society and Instagram – scrabbles around, desperately not wanting to be the last woman standing. Thirty-five is the new midnight and if you haven’t met Prince Charming or just some bloke called Andy, it’s game over, however loudly your feminist rationale shouts at you for being so pathetic.

And before you know it, half your mates are talking about commuter trains and Norwich and schools and gardens. And even if you have the willpower of Wonder Woman, and you’re not listening to your mother’s constant inquiry into if you’ve met “somebody special” yet, and you don’t spend all your money on flat whites, you’re still living in a flatshare because this economy is making it really bloody hard for any of us to live like adults. House prices, Brexit and our reckless dependence on avocados and coffee is turning that pulsing heartbeat into a bit of a bloody headache.

And so I’ve started to wonder: is the city for ever? Is it sustainable? Do I love London that much anyway? I love the sea and there’s no sea in London. I love walking and you can do loads of that in the country. And anyway, will I love London if all my mates are gone? When they tell me over dinner that kids are coming next year, or Tom has always loved Scotland, or that they want a house not a flat, I start to sweat. Is this just how it goes? Is this why someone invented cul-de-sacs – to catch those who fell out of the city looking for something they weren’t quite sure of? Because, apparently, city life only works when you pay for one room and enough pesto pasta to make it through the month. And if you want anything more – like a home or a cat or a small shed to write strange thoughts in, you’d best widen your Zoopla search. Besides, isn’t it strange that you’re holding on to the city of your twenties, a city that is hard and fast, and a time in your life when you spent your last 50 quid on a silk Zara bomber jacket in the sale, rather than eat for a few days. Do I just need to grow up? After all, plenty of people leave the city willingly, only to find themselves happier than they thought possible.

Well, I actually feel pretty grown up – I have enough debt, I listen to Radio 4 a lot, I like Friday nights in. And, of course, I know the city isn’t for everyone and choosing not to live in it is not some short-circuiting of a human brain. People aren’t just pushed out of cities – they are pulled to close-knit communities and wide skies and fields and fresh air and walking to work. I get it.

But I think what I need is to be honest. I don’t actually want to leave London, even if everyone else does. Maybe that makes me delusional or selfish and practising in the dark art of "adulting". Maybe it will shorten my life expectancy or mean I’ll be paying off my overdraft when I’m 80. But really the problem here isn’t the city – it’s the pressure; it’s the musical chairs on acid making me panic and plan. “Just watch your own horse” was one of Oprah’s favourite mantras when she was making her show. That might be easier said when you’re Oprah.

Because could I give up the Jubilee line? And the house prices and wine prices and the Tube? In a heartbeat. But could I give up the sense you’re at the centre of something; that anything could happen; that you’re part of a collective rush and thrill; like kids in the rapids, you’re being pulled along by a force that is both wonderful and terrifying and sometimes you slip too much one way, but it won’t be long before you fall back the other? Like hell I could.

Women are under so much pressure it can be blinding. We’ve got to believe in what we love, even if society thinks otherwise.


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