I used to commute in London with at least one book, some journal papers, two pens and two highlighters. Once, a lovely gentleman saw me maniacally highlighting some photocopies of journal papers and we struck up a great conversation about research subjects. On the tube. He was a biologist and a lab assistant. I was trying to see if the PhD life was for me. Turns out, it wasn’t.
When I was a teenager I used to do track. I was a short distance sprinter and I was painfully average. I was sufficiently dedicated, I loved the daily training sessions but ultimately I was not a great talent. Even though, I did enjoy beating the boys in my school at PE sprinting – they seemed to take it as a personal affront that I was quicker. I trained from 12 to about 16 and then gave it all up to study for my university entrance exams (which I failed) and to take up smoking alongside a bit of teenage angst. The point is, to this day, whenever I smell the tartan track flooring I want to put on my spikes and take a few laps.
There’s something about smells and to be honest the only other smell that brings on such a strong reaction for me is the smell of books. And unlike the track, I am good with books, or, if I put aside the false modesty, I am really good with books.
Now some people will tell you that there are quality books and trash books but I take comments like that as a personal affront. There are books. There are stories. As long as you find the ones that speak to you then you’re fine, you’ve found some good books. And this, I discovered, quite by accident, in London.
I had grown up being a bit of a bookworm and I had been fed the “quality vs trash” books theory at school. I dutifully read the classics. I discovered some gems but I also discovered some of the most boring books ever written. I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and thought I had done something of note. Which, being in my 40s now and having read a lot more I can tell you, it’s not that important.
In London – through a combination of being here during some formative years and the kinds of things I was doing – I discovered three things about words and books.
First, books have power as objects too, not just as ideas. You only have to walk into the British Library or Senate House to realise that so many books together probably distort time and space. (By the way, if you have never been to Senate House library but you are a lover of books then you are missing something important from your life.) Not that this time and space distortion idea is something I thought of, no, this is really Terry Pratchett’s theory of L Space, which brings me to my second point.
Fantasy books. I had discovered Pratchett while I was in Greece thanks to a gaming shop owner who insisted I should play Discworld Noir (he was right) but mainly due to Grigoris Miliaresis – an incredible writer and tech thinker whom I met far too young. He was a fan and he told me which book to start from (Witches Abroad. It’s the one I always recommend to Pratchett newbies too). But to really *get* Discworld I had to live in Britain – to understand what was special about Nanny Ogg, why Ank Morkpork is the way it is and why Captain Vimes’ ‘Boots Theory’ of Socioeconomic Unfairness makes sense. I am a huge fantasy fan and it started with Sir Terry.
Once, I said to a professor at uni that fantasy was my porn. He looked at me seriously and asked if I thought that fantasy was somehow inferior. He was an accomplished academic whose PhD students always went on to do great things. When he mentioned a medieval poem with the court troubadour horrified that the lady of his dreams actually defecated (that’s what you get for sneaking up on people) I thought he was talking to me. People are people and books are books.
Which brings me to my third point. Some of us have books inside us and they help us navigate the world. Some are books we read and some are books we could write. And I think I have some of those. They are unfinished, unruly and possibly a bit loud. But they are composed of words that are important to me and as Neil Gaiman says, “words save our lives… sometimes”. And trust me, words saved my life more than once in London.
This is where I stopped writing to see if I was a writer. In London I started writing to see who I am. I wrote letters that made my sister cry, I wrote stories to say the things I left unsaid or to go down a path I did not dare take. I wrote blog posts to explain myself to myself and others to find a community – which I did – in those glorious early years of blogging. I wrote to see if I was a researcher (not at the time, I wasn’t) and I wrote to understand food. I kept writing, even when work got too much, I filled notebooks I’m always embarrassed by, I wrote other letters to my oldest friend.
It’s what I’m doing right now, I’m writing to (re)discover what 20 years in London brought me. It was not enough to be here, it turns out. I had to find the words to explain it to myself.
Over the years I found immense joy in books that take place in London – a trend that started my first year at Birkbeck when we examined London in art and literature. Here are some of my favourites.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
- Disturbia by Christopher Fowler
- Brick Lane by Monica Ali
- Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
- The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré
- London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
- The Uncommercial Traveller by Charle Dickes – especially the ones about shy neighborhoods.
- Grexit/ Brexit
- The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
- The night bus
- Words save our lives… sometimes
- The rest is noise
- How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box
- Always have a sister
- Greek London
- This green and pleasant land
- The bridge of aspiration
- The knight in well travelled armor
- Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
- Moments in Art
- The NHS hunger games
- In nocte consilium
- The friends we found, the friends we lost
- Blogging tips for beginners
- Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
- γνῶθι σεαυτόν
- How to leave London