Twenty years ago today, I packed the last of my things from my flat in South London to begin the long journey up through the centre of the city, up through North London, onto the M1 and up to Derby.
I’d made this journey many times over the previous few years. I’d lived in London for seven years, but I’d kept my house in Derby as a sort of occasional weekend retreat. This time though, I was leaving for good.
The last thing I did before leaving was to climb out of my bedroom window onto the flat roof of the extension below, then climb up the slates to the top of the terrace where I had lived, in the top floor flat. I had a theory that I should be able to see the top of the Canary Wharf Tower from there, a little over four miles away. And I was right.
I’d been meaning to try this for years, and I left it, literally, to the last minute. My girlfriend Polly, who’d come over from Hong Kong to stay with me in the flat for a few days, was already sitting in the passenger seat of my car in the street below. I wished I’d had my camera with me, but I’d already packed it. My last job in London had been based in the top floor of the tower and it amused me that I could see my office from my flat, when it took the best part of an hour to get there in the morning.
I loved my time in London. It was an amazing adventure that I never took for granted. I’d had two brilliant jobs there. I’d been a system manager at a Japanese bank in the City for two years, then from 1996 an IT specialist at a US investment firm at Canary Wharf. That second role especially was a fantastic opportunity for a young man. I had frequent business trips to New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Frankfurt and Geneva, always business class, always one of the best hotels in town or a serviced apartment, always fully expensed, restaurant and bar bills never given a second glance.
But I’d lost that job when a “market correction” occurred following the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001. When I turned the key for the last time in the front door of my flat, I’d been out of work for seven months. The firm had given me a fairly big sum of cash when they asked me to leave and I still had most of it, but it seemed imprudent to be paying an expensive rent in London and a mortgage in Derby in those circumstances. I’d pretty much been having a holiday in London since March the previous year, when I was placed on “gardening leave”. But I hadn’t been getting a monthly salary since June.
So, I decided on what I optimistically termed a “tactical retreat”, to Derby. I would continue to look for another role in London from there, but of course I couldn’t know whether I’d be successful or not.
I well remember the melancholy drive north. The noise and bustle of central London gave way gradually to the subdued grey of its outskirts as the afternoon daylight faded to dusk. When the front wheels of my car made contact with the bottom end of the M1 I noted to myself, with a certain sense of disbelief, that I was no longer a resident of London.
I had become a proud Londoner, over the preceding years. Now I wasn’t.
Adjusting to life in Derby was not easy, not least because I didn’t really want to. When you’re used to living in the capital city, it’s hard to wake up in a nondescript housing estate on the outskirts of a dull provincial town with no particular reason to get out of bed. I’d lived in Derby before of course, in the same house. But I was used to life in London now, and I had no job in Derby this time. I came to think of my life there post-London as a sort of living death; indeed I used to claim that if you could drink beer when you were dead, there’d be no meaningful difference.
One compensation of moving back to Derby was that I’d be able to see more of my friend Shaun, whom I’d worked with at Rolls-Royce. Shaun was the only person I’d kept in touch with from Derby. But he’d been ill for some time, and he died in hospital from complications arising from an infection in July the same year.
The highlight of my week in London had been to take a train into the West End on a Saturday morning and walk round the shops for a few hours: the Strand, Covent Garden, Oxford Street, Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square. For a while I’d go to Nottingham on Saturdays as a sort of surrogate West End, but after a few weeks I was contenting myself with the centre of Derby. I’d walk in from my house a few times a week, often with a mild hangover. I was probably mildly depressed. I medicated myself with alcohol.
I didn’t feel sad the whole time exactly, more displaced and disconnected. Lost. I had flown too close to the sun, my wings had melted and I had tumbled from the sky into the sea.
The 2002 World Cup was a welcome diversion. But mostly that year, I distracted myself by immersing myself in the World Wide Web. I spent many hours arguing the merits of another war against Iraq, something that had started to look quite likely. I took an active part in several music mailing lists and message boards.
Every few weeks, I’d take a train from Derby back into London on a Saturday. I’d slip into my identity as a Londoner for a few hours, like putting on a coat. It felt a little like coming up for air. It was genuinely a relief to do this, to remind myself that London was still there, still no more than a train ride away. And I was still the same person. I would never be a tourist in London.
But I had no luck finding another role there and my next job was in Derby. A dismal job to be frank, working for an outsourcing company. I didn’t stay there long though, and I started to claw my way back up the career ladder. By 2006 I’d met my wife here in the East Midlands and by that time I had no intention of going back to live in the capital.
I sold my house in Derby in 2009 and I live in Leicestershire now, with some brilliant cycling routes almost literally on my doorstep. I live in a bigger and nicer home than I would have afforded within commuting distance of Canary Wharf or the City. And the thought of fighting hordes of fellow commuters to get on a tube train every morning, while it was exciting at the time, has no appeal to me now.
I look back on those seven years in London with huge affection and nostalgia. Every Oasis or Blur tune takes me back to that magical Britpop summer of 1995, when I first moved there. I certainly miss London sometimes. It calls to me, and I return for a while. But the terrifying provincial nothingness outside the M25 turned out to be, in the end, my best life.