Well, this is odd. I’ve just stumbled upon this huge blog post that I wrote when I left London, but which I obviously felt too ashamed to post at the time. It is fearsomely long, and probably only of interest if you are me. But I suddenly feel like posting it. After all, no one has to read it, and I can always delete it.
Here it is…
So tell me, Chris, why did you leave London?
It all comes down to money, illness and accidents. And what I want to spend my life doing.
I’m never sure where to begin explanations. I try to start at the beginning, but then I want to go further back, to explain how the conditions for that beginning arose. And then I want to account for those conditions, and so it goes on. Left to my own devices, I think I would begin my answer to every question with an account of how the universe formed. It’s the main reason why I look blank for a couple of seconds whenever anyone asks me a question, which is why so many people take me for a foreigner or an imbecile. So, you’ll see that I’m exercising considerable restraint when I begin my answer (to the question I’ve asked myself) in 2014.
Firstly, my book suddenly did well last year. It didn’t make me a millionaire or anything, but it’s earned me about £20,000 from 25,000 sales. That’s pretty unusual for a self-published book, especially by an author who hasn’t got any other novels out, and especially by one who does none of the relentless self-promotion that we’re all meant to do. (This blog is a very low-key attempt to embark on that relentless self-promotion.) So it makes sense to follow it up before all its readers entirely forget it. It makes sense to do that, and I also really want to do it. I want to write another book. I’d like to write many more. I want to be allowed to dream and imagine and entertain myself for a living (or at least for part of a living). In any case, the first step is to finish another book, and that was looking close to impossible in London.
Secondly, I felt that I couldn’t go on as I was. It feels strange saying that, because really everything was finally working the way I’d always wanted it to, and in April last year I finally stopped constantly feeling like an abject failure. I earned more from freelancing last year than I ever have, and I went to Edinburgh with a comedy show that did pretty well. I had enough money for a deposit on a flat, and was only saved from buying one by the sudden change in lending rules. (Since I’m perhaps starting to blog, I might write about buying a flat, since it’s by a long way the most stressful thing that has ever not happened to me.) Instead I moved into a nice, unshared flat – the first time I’ve managed that combination in London – which is to say, in my life.
But even though everything was going well last year, I was feeling more and more overwhelmed – working, performing, writing, trying to buy a flat, trying to keep up with friends and family – all of which involved emails, Facebook messages, texts, calls, going places. And all the tasks I was juggling meant chopping up my attention into ever thinner slices. I felt like I was constantly reeling, like my brain was overheating. (My brain is happiest, I think, when it has only one thing to deal with.) I don’t want to make any big claims for how busy I was – I think most people are probably much busier, and have far more more demands on them. I don’t even have children or a proper job and I felt overwhelmed. But then I’m made of much less stern stuff than other people, and friends constantly laugh at how slowly I do everything. I can’t help it: I’m just designed to run at a lower speed, and the effort to keep up with everyone else is quite a strain.
In November, something gave. It was a week after I’d moved into my new place, and the day after I’d cleared everything out of my old room. I woke to find that my back was catastrophically unable to do anything without immense pain, and I had a temperature. But the worst thing was that I felt exhausted, in my brain and body. I think there are two kinds of tiredness. There’s the normal kind, which I usually have, where you look and feel incredibly tired but can still somehow do all the things you need to do (I think parents are particularly familiar with this kind of tiredness). And then there’s the other kind, where you can’t do anything, and have to psych yourself up for the effort of just tying your shoes, which leaves you panting slightly. I had the second kind. And it wasn’t just physical. My brain had slowed to a crawl, and I didn’t have the energy to hold a thought long enough to do anything about it.
I thought it would pass in a few days – a week at the outside. And I maintained that week-at-the-outside prognosis for the next four months. I was in the middle of a couple of big work projects when it struck, and I’d taken time off so I could move house, so I had a lot to catch up on, as well as all the arranging of bills and changing of addresses. But I decided to be realistic: I called my clients and told them I would be out of action for a week, That’s something freelancers don’t do, because it makes you look like a flake, and it invites your client to go and find someone else who can do the job now. But I did it. After a week I didn’t feel much better, but I did have the energy to force myself to finish the immediate bit of the project I was working on – finishing designing a workshop and running it twice. I more or less did an acceptable job, but afterwards I felt even more exhausted than I had before.
I should have gone to see the doctor, but I was too tired. That’s one problem with the NHS: you need to be in pretty good health just to have the energy to deal with the system. I’d moved house, so I needed to register with a new doctor, which meant looking them up on line and making decisions. I was just too tired. When I did get the energy together, I found all the ones I was allowed to register with were rated terribly by their patients. I called one anyway, but they didn’t answer the phone – one of the things their patients had complained about most bitterly. I could have gone to my old doctor, but that meant a fifteen-minute bike ride or an hour’s journey on public transport. It also meant phoning the doctor at the stroke of eight, because that’s the only time you can make an appointment. You need to keep calling till you get through, and then you need to deal with a person. I was too tired for any of that. I was too tired even to think about it all. And anyway, I’d be better in a few days. It was just a virus.
I finally did get enough energy to see a doctor in February, and had blood tests. They said I’d had a nasty virus and was now post-viral, which would make me very tired for about six weeks. I wanted to take a holiday, but I found it impossible to organise. It sounds ridiculous, but my brain was too tired to deal with looking things up on websites, comparing options and working out what I’d like. In fact, that kind of switching attention and evaluating options was exactly the thing that my brain found most stressful and overwhelming.
I didn’t feel well enough to work, so I took time off and stayed at home. That’s a pretty disastrous thing for a freelance to do. But after a while I thought I might be up to dealing with the slow and deliberate process of building up a book, so that’s what I did.
I really enjoyed it, and soon moved from the planning to the writing, and then built up so that I was doing about three thousand words a day. By Saturday the 28th of March I was feeling better – not completely better, but able to do things again. I started cycling again, and I went to my first improv class since November. I really enjoyed it, and was quite surprised that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it.
But on my way home that night, I was hit by a car.
It was midnight, and I was cycling along Lea Bridge Road, which is by some way the least pleasant road in London. I was wearing my bright yellow jacket, had my lights on, and was riding in a completely conventional along-the-road-in-a-straight-line sort of way when a silver soft-top BMW pulled into the side of me, from my right. It was a smartly executed manoeuvre into a fairly small parking space, and it would have been quite impressive if it hadn’t involved driving through me. I had that horrible slowing-of-time effect as I tried to deal with a car smashing itself into me. There wasn’t really much I could do though. And then I had the equally horrible slight-gap-in-consciousness as I struggled to come to terms with not being on my bike anymore but lying on my back in the gutter.
A man got out and said, ‘You’re all right’ in a brisk and friendly tone, with about a quarter of a question mark at the end. I was a bit shocked. I, quite uncharacteristically, said, ‘What did you do that for?’ Then the driver appeared. She seemed on the verge of tears and said, ‘I’m so, so sorry. There was a car behind driving too close and I just wasn’t paying attention. Sorry,’ it was pretty much exactly what all the insurers, lawyers, etc tell you not to say, but it instantly made me want to be nice to her. Though I thought my hand was broken (it’s happened before), I was even a bit hesitant in raising the issue of getting my bike fixed. The front wheel was badly bent, and I didn’t know what else might be fucked in a less obvious way. The woman gave me her name and phone number, and then the man asked me how much a new wheel would be. I said I didn’t know – maybe it was £80 last time I’d bought a wheel, but I couldn’t really remember. He said that was too expensive and started trying to haggle with me. The woman then joined in, and asked me to tell her the kind of wheel it was so she could check prices on the internet.
By the time I got home my shock had worn off and I was so angry that I couldn’t sleep. What kind of person drives half a ton of expensive metal into someone else and then, instead of feeling guilty and wanting to make sure they haven’t injured another human, immediately thinks about how to save £20 on the cost of repairing the damage? When I called the woman on Monday, the man answered. He refused to give me his insurance details, and just offered me £50. ‘Take it or leave it,’ he said. ‘It’s a generous offer.’ (The final cost was £340, plus about a week’s lost work, worry about my hand, which is half my livelihood, and hours and hours in police stations and hospitals.)
Hospitals are horrible places to spend time. I spent much of Sunday in A&E at Whipp’s Cross, waiting in queue after queue and not even succeeding in getting an x-ray. I saw a bored GP who told me, ‘It’s probably not broken’, which is what they told me on the phone the last time I broke a hand. At seven-thirty in the evening I gave up and went home. I might as well admit that I cried briefly, in a convenient deserted and decaying alley, just because the place was so grim, implacable, alienating and unhelpful.
Well, that pushed me out of the productive time on my book. It meant I had to spend time on admin and phone calls, going to the police station (it took four hours to do all their paperwork), seeing my GP, chasing up lost x-rays, filling in insurance forms.
I was angry. I was angry at being mistreated by people who had already quite comprehensively wronged me by striking me hard with a vehicle. I was angry with my insurers for making their forms so hard to fill in, with the London Cycling Campaign’s solicitors for constantly saying they would call back and then not calling back. I was angry with the police for asking me the same questions several times in very slightly different ways so they could put my answers in several slightly different forms and databases. And I was angry with the structure of reality for allowing a fundamentally well-meaning person like myself to suffer unjustly. What made me most angry was wasting all that time – that massively and unbelievably expensive London time.
People have always told me that London’s an expensive place to live, but for most of the time I’ve been there it was more that you just got much less for your money. You sacrificed having a lovely place to be at home for the sake of having a lovely (or at least really interesting) place around you when you went out. In 2010 I accidentally became poor, and moved into a grotty shared house in Hackney – the rent for my room being around the same (£550) as my sister’s mortgage on her house (with garden) in Leeds. And that seemed fair enough: I lived with a painter, a musician and several visiting cats, and I could cycle anywhere in the huge city in less than an hour.
But in the last couple of years it has become genuinely expensive. The people moving in to that shared house were paying £800 a month, there were five of them instead of three of us, and even the cats seemed to have disappeared. I wanted, at last, to live somewhere nice and not share. The cheapest place I saw was £900 plus bills, and it was tiny and indescribably horrible. To get somewhere big enough to accommodate both me and some of my possessions, the standard rate in Walthamstow (further out than Hackney, which was then too expensive even to look at) was £1,100. Even the places I saw for that amount were not nice, and each had one major thing wrong with them. I opted to pay £100 more and live in a small but nicely decorated one-storey granny flat, tacked on to the side of a proper house.
Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t got ill? I almost certainly wouldn’t have moved to Berlin. I might have carried on earning enough to pay my London rent without too much stress.
But how much stress is too much? The fact that I’d got ill almost as soon as I moved in to my new place made me suspect that something inside me had been longing for a break, and that finally getting to a comfortable place without housemates (the last year of sharing was very tense, all the original people having left by then) had told some inner part of me that it was finally safe to be ill, to stop holding on. And I asked myself, ‘if this illness were trying to tell me something, what would it be?’
The most immediate answer was that it was trying to tell me to sleep a lot, and to spend almost all the rest of my time sitting on my sofa, reading and watching TV, breaking for a daily walk around the almost-charming Hollow Ponds, in the bottom-most splinter of Epping Forest. I haven’t watched so much TV since I was a kid, when I would hurry home from school to watch the cartoons, distractedly sit through utter shit like Record Breakers or We Are The Champions, and then sometimes get the huge reward of Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, or The World at War, all of which I watched on our very old black and white television, which took time to warm up before it would show a picture. Nowadays we have Netflix and iPlayer, and somewhere around 2000 people worked out how to make TV series like the Wire that are so good you want to live inside them. I watched Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Better Call Saul, and The World at War for the second time in my life. Partly because of this I’ve been feeling closer to my childhood self again, like I’m coming home.
I was alone a lot, not feeling able to deal with people but also often feeling lonely. It made me realise how much energy life in London requires. Everyone’s scattered all over the city, so we end up meeting in the middle, often to do things, like improv, which are fun and yet also take work and organisation. Everyone’s manically busy all the time, trying to earn enough to live in London while also trying to do all the things that make living in London worthwhile. I felt as though I had dropped out of the world, and that no one had really noticed.
When it comes to mournful perceptions like that, I’m a pro. I have considerable experience and expertise when it comes to getting depressed – I’ve been doing since I was nine, and have become so skilled at it that I was rewarded with almost two years of individual therapy on the NHS. If I’m going to blog, I may as well talk about depression, I suppose. Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive made me feel that it’s all right to admit to having one of the most common diseases in the world. And perhaps I can do it without self-pity, and without making myself unemployable. But that’s for another time.
Anyway, all this made me realise that I didn’t have the energy to resurrect my freelance career and my London life and finish my book at the same time. Nor could I face the stress of trying. I felt as though my ability to deal with stress had permanently diminished. Anyway, I decided to do one thing at a time: to finish the book and then get a proper job.
But being driven into by a BMW had already cost me a week’s work on the book (as well as ruining my bike and the pleasure of cycling in London). It made me see how much pressure being in London was putting me under. If the book took another couple of months, it would cost me at least £5,000, and that was just for the first draft. If something else unexpected happened – someone else hitting me with a huge piece of metal, for example, or another illness – then it would cost even more and take even longer. And how long would it take me to get a job afterwards? It seemed very likely that I would end up watching my savings disappear and have nothing to show for it.
And when every day is so expensive, you need to get a lot done to justify that day. You start to obsess over word counts, and I didn’t want the book to turn into yet another source of stress – how can anyone enjoy reading it if I don’t enjoy writing it? And what’s the point of writing if I don’t enjoy it? I already have a way to make money from writing that I don’t particularly enjoy.
And that’s when my thoughts really turned towards going somewhere other than the most expensive city in the world to write my next minor comic novel. I had to make the decision fast, because I had a six-month break clause in the lease on my flat. If I didn’t hand in my notice on it in a few days I would have to stay there till November.
I was thinking of putting money aside as a budget for writing my new book, so I wouldn’t have to stressfully and unsuccessfully try to do it in the evenings (when I’ve been writing dispiriting things for money all day and can’t face writing another word) and weekends. If, say, £5,000 would buy me (probably less than) two months in London, why not go to a place where it would buy me more time? A friend had been to Berlin the summer before (also to finish writing a book) and said she had lived very well on a thousand pounds a month. Though my book’s selling a lot less well than last year, it could still contribute about a third of that. And I felt that what I really wanted was time. I wanted a break from stress and pressure. I wanted to live more calmly. Taking five months to write a book sounded much nicer than taking two months. My friend told me that lots of people go to Berlin to write or make music, or whatever, and the fact that it’s so transient makes people more friendly, since they usually arrive not knowing many other people.
It all sounded great in theory, but there were lots of dangers. My therapist holds that people are the only really effective antidepressants, and that depression arises because of problems feeling secure in relationships. So leaving everyone I know and going to a place where I know no one at all seems almost the stupidest thing I could possibly do.
Only time will tell.