When I moved to London in 1990, at first commuting weekly from Cardiff where I had been living and working, then eventually shifting all my few possessions up to The Smoke, I was not - as the current cliche is - ‘in a good place’.
I had very vaguely - very vaguely indeed - been planning to set myself up as a freelance photographer, but getting the boot from my job as a sub-editor on the South Wales Echo for one cock-up too many (see this entry for part of the reason why) hastened things, and for about ten months I had scraped together a certain kind of living taking pictures, selling features to Wales on Sunday and working sub-editing shifts on the Western Mail (until its editor, one John Humphries - Geoff Rich without the heart, was one memorable description of the man, which, though, will mean nothing to anyone reading this unless you knew Geoff Rich - heard about my sacking from the Echo and banned his chief sub from giving me shifts. Incidentally, looking up John Humphries on the web to make sure I got the spelling of his name right, I notice he has reinvented himself as a gardener and writes a gardening column for Wales Online. Odd. All I can say is that I wouldn’t like to be a flower in his garden.)
Come the turn of the financial year in April 1990 and yet another of Britain’s financial crises, work dried up. It was as though the tap had been turned off. It was actually quite startling. No one wanted to spend any money. Until then I had been doing as well as I might have hoped and working hard. From April on there was virtually nothing, most certainly not enough to live on, so by June I did what I actually should have done ten years earlier and rang the Fleet Street papers to see whether I could get any shifts as a sub.
At the time ‘Fleet Street’ was still a notion in the industry and several papers were still located there or nearby. Now, none are, and ‘Fleet Street’ will mean as little to most as ‘Grub Street’. And you haven’t heard of Grub Street? Didn’t think so. If you are interested read New Grub Street by George Gissing to give you an idea. I struck lucky on my first call, to the Daily Express and was given several shifts. Other shifts followed on other papers and very soon indeed I was working seven days a week, here, there and everywhere. And that was a good thing, because I was once again suffering from one of the bouts of depression which have blighted my life and keeping busy was a tonic.
For whatever reason, I have never liked London, though to this day I can’t tell you why. But in 1990 and the few years after when I was feeling pretty low and the depression didn’t lift, I especially disliked it. Given the sheer size of the city and the spiritual state I was in, I felt very lost as though the city were sitting right on top of me, and I was keenly aware that in the grand scheme of things, I was utterly, utterly insignificant, rather like one grain of sand on a beach is indistinguishable from the billions of other grains.
Ironically, of course, that is pretty much all we are, insignificant, except that, thankfully and praise the Lord (Mammon, if need be and that’s your schtick), none of us is aware of it. Thankfully and for most of our lives we have family and friends
Driving up on a Sunday morning, working a shift; working a double shift on the Monday and Tuesday, then a single shift on the Wednesday before jumping back into the car and driving westwards down here to North Cornwall doesn’t give you a great deal of time to hobnob with the Queen or get down and dirty in the nightspots of Hackney or wherever London’s cool go to chill. But even though I am hardly on even on a nodding acquaintance with the city and its people, I have to some extent become familiar with some of metropolitan attitudes.
I’ve always thought that to enjoy London you must be young, well-off and preferably both. OK, you can enjoy it even if you aren’t necessarily well-off and are obliged to count the pennies if long-term debt isn’t our bag, but being young is pretty much sine qua non. Come the early squalls of middle age and most folk hitch up and settle down and move to where rents and house prices are cheaper (although ironically doing so means they will spend more on commuting).
Some, of course, stay but then they can afford to. I was three days ago talking to a well-known Mail columnist with whom I’m on chatting terms and asked her where she lived. I knew it was in North London, but didn’t exactly know where. Hampstead, she told me. But then she is single - again - has no children and will be on a generous contract, so Hampstead is where she can afford to live. She’s in the minority.
. . .
I meant in this entry to write about what is called ‘the metropolitan elite’ or ‘the liberal elite’ and how I am devastated that to this day it has not occurred to anyone to ask me to join. I would most certainly turn down the invitation where it to be made, of course, but it would be nice to be asked. I intended to start off by writing about London, then gracefully segue into eight hundred words of pithy prose about that elite.
Sadly, I lost my train of though a little earlier on and, despite some frantic searching these past few minutes, I am not at present able to lay my hands on it again. So rather than write something which would forced, I shall leave that until another time. Sorry. Try again in a few days time (you not me. Your luck might be in).
. . .
I’ve just come across new word: idiolect. Just before posting this and returning to my browser, I was sidetracked (as invariably we are by the net) by piece about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize in the Guardian. That’s where I came across it. The piece, which you can find here, is rather silly in that the Guardian features editor obviously thought the paper had to write something about Dylan and obviously felt that Armitage, a poet, might be the chap to do it. But I would rather he or she had gone for someone who truly liked Dylan from the start rather than Armitage, whose line is rather throwaway.
Here’s an excerpt: ‘Maybe in Dylan I recognised an attitude as well, not more than a sideways glance, really, or a turn of phrase, that gave me the confidence to begin and has given me the conviction to keep going.’ And maybe not. The piece seems to shout ‘I really don’t know a great deal about the man, but I could do with the money, so let’s go for it’. Shame.
Anyway idiolect: I have never before come across the word and as is a racing certainty I shall now hear it used several times over the coming few days. I wonder whether I have an idiolect? Be great if I did. Fancy!