What I learned from 20 Years in London (written in 2019)

A week or so ago I realised that it’s almost twenty years since I moved to London, and I was trying to figure out how the city has changed in that time, and the truth is, it’s a totally different place but also much the same. As far as I can tell the starkest difference between now and then is that the Victoria line going southbound retains some of the posher voices after Stockwell. But that’s true of everywhere really. Areas like Hackney, Brixton, Peckham, Bermondsey, Walthamstow, or wherever the current hub of all perceived creativity and cool things happens to be, they’ve all been marked by the hand of gentrification. Even back when this journey began and I moved to Clapham North, it wasn’t the Clapham North that everyone knows today. It was tatty, there was a big drive-thru Burger King that sold bacon double cheeseburgers for less than a quid all year round, just plonked in the middle of the High Street (now a Sainsburys Local).

But rather than lamenting a lost, simpler, rose-tinted time, with rare internet access outside work, no mobile phone in your pocket, and a far more inclusive smoking policy, I thought I’d cobble together my memories of those first few months instead. They were, to coin some ancient philosophy, really fucking wonderful. I was green, I’d been to London literally once before to visit the National Gallery with school, and I’d decided to make it a permanent residence on the back of a romance with a lady (not still going), a bromance with some pals (mostly still going), and a two-week unpaid work experience stint at the gentleman’s monthly FHM, where, without any prior experience of writing anything apart from homework, I decided I should probably have a job (and did for a few months, until I fucked it up).

Like any modern country mouse in search of their fortune, my mum had driven me to the bus station in Oxford and dropped me off and I’d tried not to cry while we hugged goodbye. I had a single ticket to London Victoria and a suitcase full of dreams (and also clothes). The plan was to wire home and arrange a pick-up of my precious record collection and a clipframed John Coltrane poster once I’d began steadily amassing a pile of cash (around a month in, I’d approximated). The tube map looked like a baffling spaghetti junction with no correct answer, and in those early weeks I would blow my nose and soot would come out. Actual soot from the London Underground.

I ambled into FHM for the first day of what I didn’t realise at the time, but would actually become some kind of hodgepodge career in writing (an absurd way to make a living). I know exactly what I was wearing because within a few hours I’d been ushered off to be photographed posing on a Micro Scooter and I still have the pictures. I had an old blue shirt on, Sta-Prest Levis and yellowish leather slip-on shoes. About the smartest clothes I had without drowning myself in a suit. Fate had also conspired that I’d arrive at the offices in Oxford Circus at precisely the same time as Ginger Spice, who was there to check that her front cover was up to scratch. She said “hello” to me and my entire body convulsed with confusion. I had no idea who I was anymore. “Alright” I spluttered back, desperately trying to hide my panic. My face turned beetroot red. Precisely two days later, I saw Louise Nurding (or possibly Redknapp by that point) in a lift, and I drooled hi like it was no big deal.

Those latter months of 1999 and early ones of the dreaded YEAR 2000, when we somehow dodged the Millennium Bug after weeks of breathing into paper bags, continued at a hundred miles an hour. Old magazine folk were already moaning about how it just wasn’t the same anymore, how they’d all jumped the shark, but to me, I was working in an intoxicating job that I didn’t want to go home from. It was exciting, and because I was young and permanently grinning (to hide that I had no idea what I was doing) everyone was nice to me. I spent entire days researching and listing all of the “stockists” in the magazine (i.e. brands whose stuff had appeared in photographs) like I was busting Watergate wide open, or transcribing interviews (the worst job on the planet) with a disturbing attention to detail, even spelling ums and ahhs correctly. Literally every bone in my body felt like I’d made it.

It’s hard not to romanticise those early forays, in the same way it’s hard not to romanticise the beginning of anything that feels like it changed the course of your life (which isn’t as dramatic as it sounds – just moving to a new flat has a butterfly effect). Going to cheap restaurants like Café Emm on Frith Street where they’d pile your plate high, knocking back budget booze in strange drinking holes like Gossips on Dean Street in Soho, or playing records at the Pentagon in Clapham with my pal Sam. I felt like I was sucking the marrow out of life. Of course, all of those places aren’t there anymore, because London holds no truck with my stupid nostalgia, it’s transient and much bigger than me. It doesn’t stop, and with the exception of Garfunkel’s that would survive a nuclear holocaust, even the buildings don’t always stick around, leaving the skyline permanently unfinished.

The ladder I came here to climb twenty years ago doesn’t exist anymore either, almost every magazine I worked on in my first decade has closed down (not entirely my fault!), and for a long time I fretted about not having found my place here, about not quite being part of it. But then that’s the point, there isn’t a permanence to London, you won’t conquer it, your status won’t grow as you get older (more likely the opposite), and it won’t always offer you a steady living. It’s a city that evolves whether you like it or not, with you or without you, it’s constantly emptying and replenishing, brimming with people who haven’t quite found their groove, and to live here is to be plankton.

Once I’d figured that out (over a decade in, mind you), without wanting to sound too corny, that’s when I really fell in love with the place. You don’t know what hand you’re going to be dealt, and you can’t see where the conveyor belt you’re on is heading, in transcendental terms, you’ve probably relinquished control and given yourself up to the universe in some weird way. I met my wife here, we had our kids here, that’ll just about do it for me.

NB: Josh left London and took his family with him in December 2020.

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