I moved to London in 2001, about a week after one game-changing tragedy had struck the East Coast of the United States, and proceeded to inflict one on The Smoke. I did this by depriving the West Country of one perfectly clichéd 18-year-old goth who wrote achingly terrible poetry under candlelight in an apparently sincere attempt to become a walking joke, and proffering to London a bundle of neuroses who manifestly failed to do much beyond drink Sainsburys Own Brand vodka, sleep with unsuitable people, and use up all the eyeliner in the vicinity for three years while claiming to acquire an education.
In the 10 and a bit years I’ve been living in London as a legal and supposedly responsible adult (“responsible” currently means “I have not yet given in to my urge to buy a LEGO bucket and try to make a scale map of the London Underground in my flat”), I’ve learnt a lot of things, mostly usefully a reasonably accurate mental map of most of the centre of the city which only works for pedestrians. I’ve acquired a couple of unhelpful habits (like being outraged when i have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus, despite growing up somewhere buses only visited on alternating days), and one or two very useful skills which I thought were universal until I met tourist friends.
I don’t mean obvious things like “the ability to understand a Tube map”, or the achingly logical “don’t stand in the middle of the bloody pavement”, but more esoteric but highly useful skills:
- How to walk down a flight of stairs while that flight of stairs is violently jerking about without warning and constantly changing direction. This is otherwise recognised as “how to get down from the top deck of your bus to the doors in time for your stop”, because if you want until the bus has actually stopped during rush hour you will not make it out of the doors before the bus driver decides he or she has had more than enough of letting people off the bus and plunges onward with you shouting futilely “I WANT TO GET OFF” from the foot of of the stairs. Or you fall and hit your face on someone’s laptop bag and they shout at you for potentially damaging their MacBook.
- How to write legibly on a moving vehicle, even when said vehicle is being driven by a wannabe rally driver with a fetish for abrupt hammering of the brake pedal. Again, buses. Participating in NaNoWriMo during years when I was working through November meant limited time afforded to writing, and I got into the habit of beginning my day’s writing standing at the bus stop in the dark. Then continuing it on a freezing bus while the lunatic behind the wheel tried to take out every pedestrian foolish enough to be on the road at 6.15am; since typing up these spidery travesties while braindead from work was a lot easier if I didn’t have to decipher my own hieroglyphics every five words, I learned.
- How to text while crossing a busy road. I am late for things a lot these days because of a catastrophic inability to persuade myself to leave my house. This usually involves having to tell someone I’m late, via text message; said text message gets a reply with a change of venue or time, and I have to reply to that. While en route. Usually while en route at speed trying to get from the Tube station to wherever I’m meeting someone, which involves dodging past black cabs, psychotic cyclists, and the massed ranks of humanity also trying to cross the road. Composing against counter-productive predictive text, trying to communicate with someone half a mile away while using only the side of your thumb because your thumbnail is too long, while springing out of the way of some utter [c-word] in an Audi is, I am sure, what Alexander Graham Bell had in mind when he stole the design of the telephone from his less well-known competitor.
One might suggest, given the number of times I have almost been run over in the pursuit of 3., that I haven’t entirely mastered it yet. I would counter that I am not dead yet, and therefore am clearly brilliant at it.