Big/little city life


Camilla Middleton responded Open City's Newsletter and our call for contributions from our community. Read about her new lease of perspective on London and what it means to live here and experience the city. 

Familiar now are the photos of endless cityscapes around the world, abandoned by tourists and at last the undisputed habitat of pidgins. 

A city without its people is a scene reserved for horror films: alien invasion, zombie ridden, nuclear disaster fuelled nightmares. But for most people living in the Capital, a glimpse of London Bridge without a red bus or the bare skateboard park on Southbank stirs nothing more than memories of a sweaty commute and sightseeing with distant relations. It’s the opulent centre of a cream egg in the expansive white of the City. It occupies one swift dip of a finger, the core, but in no means the substance. 

My relationship with this golden circle is a perfunctory at best. We meet on daily walks down the Mall where the trees line the roadsides and, on some days, the British flag blows. We hold hands down through St James Park where I wave at the giant pelicans and we part as I reach my desk. We have lunch together from one of four neighbouring Prets and we say goodbye as I clamber onto the steaming Victoria line at the end of the day, exhausted and in silence. 

But the weekends are where London in its full form offers community and, for the most, home. I confess I often don’t leave the boundaries of Stoke Newington where I live, a historic hamlet where once a new breed of commuters stopped on the way to the centre - not on metal tubes, but on horses. Although later subsumed into Hackney it retains its historic feel with narrow lanes and tall church spires and for the first year of living here I was amazed that in one tiny spot of London there was a yearly literary festival, sweet antipodean restaurants, decadent speakeasies, Jewish delis and children’s lidos. As a girl from south Birmingham, I could hardly believe what was on my own doorstep. London, to me, slowly became synonymous not with the sparkly core, but this small village in North London. The rich chocolate shell. 

But, like most, I took for granted what lay before me. And although it was all there to enjoy, I often played the part of bystander. Drained from the week I would find excuses to stay in and now (like everyone) I regret the many times I said no, not knowing when I will next see a town hall play, rummage through charity shops, or visit my favourite pub. 

Now, my association with Stoke Newington is limited to a daily run and each day I visit Abney Park, a stone’s throw away from my flat. There I jog past the war memorial which commemorates a collective grief quite distinct from the one we experience now. 122 people from my neighbourhood lost their lives in the Second World War, most of which died during an air raid in a public shelter. I wonder at how we will commemorate others on a more intangible front line, those doctors and nurses themselves housed in public spaces where the barriers for protection are not made of stone but of plastic. 

The space that London occupies in the UK’s vernacular is vastly disproportionate to its size. With irresistible force it appears to suck opportunity and intellect into its orbit leaving the rest of the nation to pick over the bones. Londoners are categorised as a scurrying and cold sort of creature, dismissive of a life which can be found in countrysides and smaller cities across Britain. Where people speak to their neighbours and can pay under 6 pounds for a pint. 

But in the past few weeks during lockdown, now more than ever I see that a city is more than the centre; it is more than its stereotype. Away from Westminster and the Gherkin there are areas like mine where people are coming together, swapping recipes and phone numbers. People which differ vastly and live symbiotically. 

 Whilst the virus rages on, left bare are the external structures we occupy in the week, nestled amongst the postcard pictures of Big Ben and the Tower of London, open plan offices and faceless Itsus. And whilst I miss colleagues and rooms outside of my own flat, what I miss most is the bustle of life in Stoke Newington, the home outside of my house. A small village in a big city.