“Excuse me, excuse me”, came a shrill accusatory voice behind my left shoulder down in the bowels of Stockwell. “You've just pushed into me”. I swiftly turned, whereupon I saw a slightly ovoid blonde in her 40s giving me a scathing look of incredulity.
I contemplated saying: “Had you not being going at a speed that would make a slug on lithium be impelled to over-take you, I would not have felt it necessary to give you a gentle nudge out of the way in order to alight the tube train.” But I bottled it. I then considered ignoring her instead. But not wanting to be thought of as a soigne invertebrate, I apologised.
“My bag I think caught yours in the rush”, I conceded. She narrowed her eyes, and seemingly mollified, turned her back and, along with her insipid brats, dispersed again into the crowd.
Underground platforms are just as irksome on Saturdays than at peak time during the week. Everyone's pace is a fraction slower, and when one has a cross-country train to make in time from Euston, the journey there can be a punitive one. I did fortunately, despite the somnambulist Saturday shoppers, make the train for my umpteenth weekend visit north in as many weeks.
It's upon crossing the shabby Runcorn bridge that the tenebrous familiarity of the homeland becomes evident to me, with it's rusting grandeur, crumbling turquoise veneer and the greyish-brown mud-flats of the Mersey estuary below seen flashing animatedly through its criss-cross iron girders when passing over it.
Proceeding onwards toward Liverpool and Fiddlers Ferry power station to the east is another familiar motif of the bleak northern landscape, thick grey smoke billowing in plumes from its funnels, confirmation for most they've arrived in the north. The proper north. My north. Or as Manc-born cultural commentator Paul Morley recently described it so perceptively and with his trademark slipshod lyricism: “..smoking and babbling, battling and loving, scattered and glittering, lush and brick, rickerty and plush, conspiring and crackling.... dirt and glamour.”
This year I reached my tenth anniversary in London, and considered bolting for it. A growing persistent urge to return north full-time has been niggling away at me for awhile now, usually after a bad week in the capital, and it ought to be, given current circumstances, in haste.
The reaction from London friends to such ruminations is always illuminating. In fact, it’s similar to what a BBC journalist was subject to when relocating to Salford from London. She wrote in retrospect that as far as friends were concerned, being dispatched up the M6 was “tantamount to being sent to a Siberian gulag.”
It would be challenging to unplug myself from the energy of London definitely. Harder still to disconnect myself from the activities, people and opportunities, both professional and personal. Add to that the possible feelings of failure that may occur on having more time to contemplate what wasn't achieved in a decade, and now all future possibilities to succeed there truncated, and the overall thought is one as grim as that Runcorn landscape.
But one thing of which I'm sure is a return would mean that I could live like a king and have bestowed upon me the luxuries of which are denied me in the capital – I could swap my one bed gaff for a house, detached and palatial. A flash car could sit in the expansive drive, pets would run amok in wild abandon in a long and rambling garden, and there'd still be more disposable income in which to travel. All this could occur of course without the equal financial commitment from some irritant of a partner in which to achieve it.
But then the same wave of fear visits me each time I cross that shabby bridge, and its one accompanied by a sinking feeling, a mild and yet impenetrable gloom, both latent and manifest, the like of which forebodes and thus pervades any genuinely wrought optimism at a new life across the borderline which marks of the North from the lonely hinterland of the South.
Any reluctance to ensconce myself back up here, with the likelihood of me becoming a somewhat rotund, slightly bored middle-ager, reminds me of a quote from author David Mitchell whose Irish friend gave him a good reason why he wouldn’t return to his native country: "If only I wasn't Irish I would love to live (in Ireland). But I know it too well, I know the kitchens, the front rooms, what it smells like."
These are the mad and contemptuous thoughts one is struck with while back at their place of origin, like I am now. Here it’s a cozy yet mirthless suburbia, notable for its distinct paucity of trees, and without which any neighbourhood, regardless of geographic allurement, has no sense of soul or life.
The few trees that are in existence are exotic outsiders, endangered and threatened with extinction by unsophisticated housewives who take umbrage to drinking tea on shaded patios. Most trees around here oddly reach a certain minimal height and then strangely remain that way, as if by growing any taller would be a betrayal of the highest order to the land from which they grow.
It's challenging to capture in words the bleakness of a location one returns to from duty, not desire. For my folks I'd travel to the end of the world, such is my gratitude for their infinite capacity for kindness and their tidal wave of love. But here, the oppressiveness of forever being that person you were as a child, rather than the adult you've become after those intervening years of transformation is almost tangible, especially when coupled with the dispiriting realisation that everything and nothing has changed.
The itinerant chaos at the heart of my life is now tethered to and straddling two clearly defined worlds. The family continues to press on with the minutiae of its daily routine, expertly keeping the ache of mind and quiet agony at bay but occasionally yielding to a rage and disbelief hitherto unknown. And me bouncing to and forth as interloper, struggling to keep the engine of normality running while dealing with the loss of a life which has defined me, and the disintegration of a carefully constructed existence in the big city.
But what of London now? After time, the reality of London moves further from the seductive fantasy. And neither is the reality for those of average wage. It's for those on a doctor's salary, for high-calibre financiers, for celebrities and rich Arabs. A contributor in Craig Taylor's brilliant book Londoners amusingly sums it up thus: "I'm not living in a London of big pleasures and tourism and Russian billionaires and Saatchi galleries and the London Eye, but Londin. I guess its a cross between London and Londis, really. You're not exactly Waitrose, you're not even at Sainsburys, nor Tesco. It’s a bit shit in Londin, but there are little pleasures."
He's right. For those of luke-warm means, London is akin to a third-rate supermarket. But there are little pleasures, ready to be consumed voraciously at times when they are offered. But so rare are such moments that one wonders is it worth living amongst the cheaper aisles for the rest of the time.
So I've decided, I don't think I can hack living out my years in the provincial location of my formative years again. I'd rather look upon it from afar with nostalgic and wistful warmth. Whether that is in Londin, or somewhere else in the world, I don't yet know.