I’ve found myself listening to Haley Bonar’s album Impossible Dream a lot recently. It begins with a bittersweet song, angry and wistful at the same time, about how you can never really escape where you came from. “Home town goes wherever you go.” Until that glorious day when you return, as “something to somebody”. “Just imagine what they'll say,” she sings.
Three months ago, I chose to return to my home town – Bristol – and test this impossible dream. We’d arrived back in London after a year in Los Angeles and, suddenly, living on a main road, dragging pushchairs up two flights of stairs and haring around on the Tube didn’t seem so appealing any more. Also, my mum’s health was deteriorating, we suddenly realised our son would have to register for school and wasn’t Bristol all the things hyper-rich London could no longer afford to be? Ah, I’m sure you’ve read that column before.
But, for me, Bristol was also home, and a home I’ve always adored – a place of hills and Banksy murals, paranoid trip-hop and crustafarians, where neighbours want to chat and a surprising number of people are related to the 1990s drum ’n’ bass DJ Roni Size. If you discount the bits that were carpet-bombed during the war, it’s the most aesthetically pleasing city in England, its ribbons of Georgian terraces informing a certain ideal of beauty that I’m always searching for, wherever I go. (Bath is too prim; Bristol has character.) It’s also where I’ve set my novel and each time I returned to remind myself of its damp grandeur would be a kind of rapture. If London was a place of hard-knocks reality, Bristol was a city of lush romanticism, of tender, dreamlike feelings.
A few days before we move, my old English teacher gets in touch to say he’s read one of my newspaper pieces. There’s something reassuring about his email – an invisible thread between past and present – and it turns out our new home is a few doors down from where he lived when he was my age.
Perhaps it’s this strange coincidence, but as soon as we get the keys to our new home, I feel like I’ve moved into the evacuated shell of someone else’s life. There are family friends, of course, and they are helpful, but their projections of my Bristol life as an extension of theirs feel suffocating. Bristol is not a massive place – “the biggest village in the world”, they call it – and there are memories in all its folds: the hall where I used to go to Brownies; the supermarket where my mum used to collect money for the miners; the shop where I got my ears pierced; the park where I saw Portishead; the nightclub where I first kissed a boy; the flat my dad moved into when my parents divorced. It’s as if my childhood has been superimposed on to my adult life. An old friend invites me over to dinner; my first boyfriend is there. My husband notices all the graffiti and record shops, but I just notice the ghosts. For the first few weeks, I’m swimming in excess emotion. I need what Tennyson called a separate mind/From whence clear memory may begin.
Of course, to Bristolians, my own history with the city matters little – I’ve joined that great impersonal wave of Londoners flooding its most charming neighbourhoods with our pretentious coffee orders and that residual panic when someone tries to talk to us. This is the sort of place where people riot about Tesco and launch movements like Make Bristol Shit Again. But to London ex-pats, I’m on the defensive. When one tells me they find the accent “rancid” or that they’ve only made friends with other people from Hackney, because “it’s about finding people who are likeminded, isn’t it?”, it touches a raw nerve.
Those 18 years in London and LA, which I thought was my life, were really just a parenthesis. I hear myself shouting to my son to be careful on his scooter, sounding like a mum, and hate it
I find myself justifying the move in terms of how hip the place has become – “The San Francisco of the UK, right?” – racking up recommendations for new bars and restaurants and music venues. In reality, I’m engaging with the city through its hospitals and playgrounds. Friends suggest I throw myself into politics. Anywhere else, I might. But my mum is the chair of the local Labour party and I fear it would be like lobbing a Molotov cocktail on to mother-daughter relations. I think about joining a choir, but my mum got there first, too. Still, I’m lucky to be near a close friend from university, who moved from London four years ago. I don’t have to make small talk about SATs results and loft conversions with her. She confesses that it took her years to see how much Bristol has to offer. “I felt less relevant at first. Living in London was a huge external validation. It had been propping up my self-worth. But moving to Bristol has made me look at who I am, rather than relying on ‘I’m a Londoner’ to define me.”
I feel like I’m backsliding. Those 18 years in London and LA, which I thought was my life, were really just a parenthesis. I hear myself shouting to my son to be careful on his scooter, sounding like a mum, and hate it. As I walk down familiar streets, round corners I remember seeing from inside my own buggy as a toddler, I think about how that cosy verb “to settle” also contains intimations of accepting something less than satisfactory, of paying off a debt. Maybe this why some people never settle anywhere for more than a year or two, because it allows them to hurl themselves ruthlessly onwards, fleeing intimations of decay, experiencing everything for the first time.
In the throes of an easy-listening existential crisis, I watch an old video of Neil Diamond musing in his song I Am, I Said, about being “lost between two shores.” “LA's fine, but it ain't home / New York's home / But it ain't mine no more.” Everyone has a “from” and a “to”. There is no sweet spot in between (unless you count Reading… or Swindon?!).
I clearly need to throw myself in – I’ve been dabbling in this flitty way for too long. You can get away with that in London, where there are so many options and you don’t really have to commit to anything. In a smaller city, you can’t play at being anonymous and you can’t be as evasive. And you definitely can’t avoid those hills (not if, like me, you have never learnt to drive). There is no better cure for anxiety, I find, than walking them at a pace. And, as I climb, I feel like I’m doing something practical with the panic, pushing through the indecision, working off an old self. Perhaps that unsettled feeling helps you live with your eyes open – even if the price you pay is a bruised heart.