That Whole London Thing
Photo by garry knight.
I could be moving to London. Maybe. In theory. I don’t know.
I am currently camped out in yet another kind household’s spare room – this time in Kentish Town – while an estate agent in Glasgow battles a glacial market for me and shows a trickle of viewers round the flat I own and love and currently kind of crave and yet never see. It seems my career – and I am a writer and one would assume this was a tranquil and sedentary trade – requires me to be in semi-perpetual motion with a bias towards London. For twenty years I have dragged all I care for with me in a variety of bags, but London has been a constant and, now that I’m as close as I’ll ever get to being a grown-up, perhaps my constant should be a constant. Perhaps that means I won’t have a heart attack before I’m fifty.
Of course, if I can’t sell my Glasgow flat and then top it up with ten year’s worth of savings, then I can’t buy a London base beyond a Murphy bed and a head square’s worth of floorboards. If I can sell it, then I can move to the far north of the Piccadilly Line and maybe get a bit of garden and another room for the never-endingly breeding heaps of books.
But, for now, I live in spare rooms when I can stand the disturbance of having other people around and in Holiday Inns when I really need to work. Holiday Inns always look the same and constitute what could well be my only true home. I really need to work at the moment, but I can’t afford to keep on staying in Holiday Inns, because I am supposed to be economizing, because I could be moving to London. Maybe. In theory. I don’t know.
And meanwhile Londoners greet the idea that I’m coming south to a hell mouth of homicidal drivers, ten quid coffees, greenish/grey air and drought with the relief people usually reserve for friends who have finally dumped adulterous partners or suddenly recovered from psychotic breaks. They hadn’t liked to tell me, but they never understood how I could bear to live anywhere else. They invite me to dinner and stroke my arm and give me advice about areas in which I could not ever afford to buy anything more than a lock-up garage with a missing roof.
And meanwhile my Scottish friends sigh because such things are inevitable and maybe I’ve held out long enough and everything does roll downhill eventually, but shouldn’t I keep a place in Glasgow for escapes and proper healthcare and civilized behaviour and, if they become independent, won’t I worry that I might not get a passport ? – ha ha. And underneath it all is the sense that my country has moved on since the days of Moira Anderson and kitsch self-loathing, but nevertheless every flight to other climes is in some way a judgement on the failures of a small nation. We’re Scottish, we wait to be judged.
And meanwhile – because I’m Scottish and also phobic about commitment – I entertain every possible doubt about doing anything at all, beyond giving up and letting myself fall back into another couple of decades of compromise and living out of bags and wasting time and effort and always somehow managing to be here when I ought to be there and vice versa. To sell up, to be temporarily homeless with my world in storage and to roam about N22 with cash and a fondness for nice bathrooms . . . to keep a Scottish flat I like, but won’t use any more than I do now and also have a tiny patch of London that’s mine all mine and slightly cripples my finances . . . to make any kind of decision. It all seems impossible.
But London has always been impossible and yet possible and has always called me. This isn’t because it’s a big city or even a capital city, or because young Scots in my day were taught that passing for English and heading for the metropolis were the best anybody could hope for. London – parochial, dirty, racist, class-obsessed, self-obsessed London – was the true home of another identity, a nationality that transcended nations and could allow me to be free. This London is, of course, a dream and yet it’s a dream that has shaped my life.
And the dream started early, when I was still at school and first in love with the theatre. Dundee, where I was born, didn’t really have a theatre. The rep had burned down again, but the town was saving up For me, London’s theatres were where I really began to change into someone who could . . . actually be a writer, make stories, build books, breathe through actors and govern their motions. to build a new one. Our generally high levels of despair and social division meant the saving was taking a while. I kept alert for the touring productions that would visit odd little spaces for one or two nights. I did my own saving to attend whenever I could and poured over my weekly copy of The Stage as if opening it marked my solemn rededication to a holy order. I allowed myself to be consumed by a passion every bit as illuminating and tormenting as the more usual teenage desires. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I wanted it a lot. Looking back, I think that I managed to combine an egocentric desire to be heard and to make things with a desire to escape the smother of small town expectations and cruelties and the effects of a school that hoped to prepare me for marriage to a Tory professional, but which would settle for my choosing a life of classical learning and withered charms in some moderately classy Oxbridge senior common room.
Whatever I wanted for myself, I knew it wasn’t that.
When I watched those touring shows I found a taste of what I did want. Wildcat, Borderline and 7:84 Scotland were regular visitors – all left-leaning, unmistakably Scottish theatre companies which have since been lost. Their work sounded completely different from the anglicized BBC and the faux-middle class STV. They sounded like breaking rules and being at home in your own skin. And they were funny. I was a child of English and unhappy parents who’d moved up from Working to Middle Class and were therefore uneasy in many areas. They passed on their unease. For our household, funny was risky, out loud was risky and nothing could be trusted to be our own. For me, the sound and sight of people simply being themselves, albeit onstage, was exhilarating. I chose to find a kind of truth in the layers of fakery and pretending which make up live drama. For me, a good performance rattled received values and pronunciations and was always partly about being who we are. In Shakespeare, in Chekhov, in David Anderson, in David Hare – it didn’t matter who wrote the words or when, if they were good and treated well, they were a way of being present with something fully alive. They were a way of realising that I could be more alive and more in general. This was something I could want enough to try and reach it.
The plays I saw moved beyond Scotland to address British and international concerns. One evening they might debunk the heathery myths that were all I had ever been told about my country, one night they might offer a satirical musical about the Falklands War, or present a piece by Dario Fo. Like many Scots who grew up before the 1980s, I had a very weak grip on my cultural identity. I had been led to assume that Scotland was a land of (sometimes brave) failures, drunk football thugs and angry people who were sustained by being simply not English. The arts in general and theatre in particular – disreputable, funny, human and never-the-same-twice theatre – were reshaping my preconceptions, but I still accepted that the best of anything would always eventually roll downhill to London.
This meant, I believed, that the top-quality theatre must be impossibly far away south in a foreign country. I knew Scotland had theatres of innovation and significance and I am unashamed to state that I formed a school Theatre-Goers’ Club, simply so that I could afford to indulge my addiction. But London must surely have the real thing. I could stand in my Dundee street at night and wish very hard and believe the West End rocked me a little, tugged at the pavement softly as if it was answering all my need. It couldn’t be that my adoration was unrequited, or that every stage wasn’t constantly raging with brilliance.
I can remember watching The Three Sisters on television – such cultural excursions still happened on terrestrial channels back then – and I ached every time they repeated ‘To Moscow.’ Flirty, classy, cosmopolitan Chekhov – who hadn’t always been that By the end of my time at university I was mostly a writer and definitely Scottish, but still lost. way and knew about small-town blues – had caught that hunger to be elsewhere, to engineer situations within which one could grow to be somebody else, somebody at all, learn to operate at an adequate size and volume, have dignity and fulfilment. London was my Moscow – it had Drury Lane and Covent Garden, what was then the brand new Barbican Centre. It had theatres like the Old Vic, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court where premiers had happened and would again, venues mentioned in the play scripts I read and re-read, trying to be there on nights long gone with casts I couldn’t quite imagine and audiences past recalling. It was all still unreachable, impossible. And yet, schooled to believe myself one of many plucky losers, impossibility seemed my natural habitat.
And then the little local bus company, which would eventually become the controversial behemoth Stagecoach, started to run overnight trips down to London. The student price was, I think, something like £16. I could manage that. My parents had divorced and money was tight for my mother. I hated to worry her with my enthusiasms and I didn’t want to be a cost, but I had to do what I had to do. Within a breath of hearing the coach route existed I had worked out my itinerary – I’d go down over Friday night, see a matinee and an evening performance on the Saturday, get by with a sandwich for the day and blow maybe another tenner on a cab back to the Caledonian Road where I’d climb aboard the coach home just in time for another overnight. I’d get home, sleep away Sunday, school on Monday.
It was a little punishing, but worth it and I rarely saw a bad show. As often as I could, I would step into those plush Victorian foyers, or those charged and yet curiously airless modern auditoria and my skin would race and I would be taller and, once the lights had dipped away, there would be human beings who were – even at their worst – presented as being admirable, lyrical, astounding. This was the reverse of reality television – this was an insight into the true frailty and wonder and potential stature of my species.
And if the stage was the performance space, then sometimes it could seem the audience occupied a rehearsal space. For me, London’s theatres were where I really began to change into someone who could, in a small way, follow Chekhov, actually be a writer, make stories, build books, breathe through actors and govern their motions. I could, eventually, ride the Piccadilly Line into South Kensington and have my first publishing lunch. I could earn a living doing something I loved – letting words and words and words fill me. Only the finest performances ever felt better than that and writing I could do myself at home.
But in my late teens I had no idea that was where I’d end up. I read Theatre Studies and Drama at Warwick University – near enough to Stratford for the odd outing to the RSC – and kept on looking for what I wanted. I performed, directed, puzzled and wrote, adrift in the heart of a foreign country. By the end of my time at university I was mostly a writer and definitely Scottish, but still lost. Part of my consolation was to roll downhill to London, borrow the earliest of those spare rooms and find my nation.
And my nation was there. We were there: a loose association of lost causes and would-be scribblers, heart-broken artists and more- and less-happily out-of-work actors. We were from everywhere else and hadn’t fitted in. We probably still didn’t, but we were at home amongst ourselves. We talked nonsense and made cups of coffee last all afternoon in little cafes on St Martin’s Lane. We blagged free tickets for whatever we could get: exhibitions, concerts, readings, plays. We walked under blue spring skies between the big wedding cake buildings of South Ken, or down by the river, or along the King’s Road where there’d be more elongated coffees in the Farmer’s Market, or the Chelsea Bun, or Picasso’s. A blend of awkwardness and self-harm and self-obsession and a lack of proper jobs meant we were all holding out for what we wanted, whatever impossible beauty that might turn out to be.
In a way I was permanently terrified.
There was never quite enough money, Thatcher seemed intent upon destroying everything that could keep life comfortable or even bearable and I didn’t know if I would make it as a writer. Writing seemed to be what I most needed to do and I had been published, but that didn’t mean I was earning a living, or anything like it. And I worried my next idea would be my last. I worried my next idea would be crazy. I worried I was kidding myself in every way. On the other hand, I had almost nothing and therefore almost nothing to lose. And I was surrounded by other people who were in much the same condition. (Apart from the actors. Anything bad that happens is always much worse when it happens to an actor. This was the reverse of reality television – this was an insight into the true frailty and wonder and potential stature of my species. They suffered. A lot.) And we got each other through. For every poet who couldn’t find another word, or leading man who was contemplating mini-cabbing, there was someone who was happy being chilled for a bit, or designing their continuing education, or doing something somewhere that we could all come and support. And down by the river, I could stand outside the National Theatre and know it was full of Hare and Brenton and Rudkin and people who were doing something, trying to turn a cold, hard tide. Human beings who were of the opinion that other human beings weren’t worthless were reaching across to the North Bank and Westminster and telling Parliament we didn’t buy the shit we were all being sold as sugar. This wasn’t just about the chattering classes – whoever they are – being smugly indignant. This wasn’t just about artists courting an empty-eyed media, pimping themselves and paying the rent. This was a way of knowing we weren’t alone in trying to love people and keep hopes for them, something to remind us of the qualities of life. This was something genuinely sustaining and an encouragement to reach out for better. I may have been giving things the benefit of my youthful enthusiasm and my need, but back then arts and theatre still seemed to have sufficient dignity to be audible and press towards change.
In a way, it was the happiest time of my life.
And that time will always make me think of London and London will always echo with it – the dreams that we tried to reach, the dreams we only just missed, the dreams we made true.
Having searched and believed and tried so hard, I and the inhabitants of my other country, my London, all found something we wanted. We see one another less and less, because we’re busy now. I used a free university education, cheap public transport and the mercy of strangers to batter together the start of a life I love. I took advantage of possibilities that would be in many ways closed to me if I were starting out now. And so I get to write and travel and write and perform and write and travel. I get to have a high-class problem like wondering whether to have one base or two. Some of my friends from twenty years ago now have degrees, or families, or work as counsellors, or turn up in movies, or in the papers, or in galleries, or make beautiful things that no one much knows about but they are still beautiful things and we know and that’s enough. We survived Thatcher, we survived Blair and now we’ll survive Cameron.
And perhaps, setting many other considerations aside, that is why the ache to be in London is so strong again – and this time for real and as permanently as my peripatetic profession will allow. I live in a time when the real theatre is happening in the streets. The press has declared a new golden age for the West End, but all that’s golden are the performers. The theatres are largely filled with musicals, revivals, format-changing variations on safe themes. As Scotland goes on its way, deciding what it is and what it will be in increasingly numerous and often positive directions it would be wonderful to see England do the same, to decide it is something more than the media’s presentation of the feudally servile, or drunkenly violent, the pitiable list of scared tabloid negatives - Not Foreign, Not Gypsy, Not Dying of Cancer yet. And it would be wonderful to see if London can be one of the places where England remembers how many possibilities there are in Englishness and how much it has survived. It would be magnificent and life-saving if London reminded Britain that we built a welfare state from nothing but faith in a broken country and that it worked very well. And perhaps London can be one of the places where England remembers that its entertainments weathered religious and political censorship, the closing of the playhouses, the forgetting and suppressing of songs and dances and ways of being with each other that made human beings feel they could be better in themselves and with each other. Perhaps London’s theatres will remember the times when they helped push a whole culture forward, change a country and speak truth to power. When I move, I'll move in hope. If that ever happens, I’d have to see it. I'd have to be there. ■
You can see A. L. Kennedy in conversation at the London launch of Britain:
The London Launch
10 May, 6.30 p.m., Waterstones, 203-206 Piccadilly, London W1J 9HD. Tickets £5, £3 for Waterstones' loyalty card holders, free for Granta subscribers. Tickets can be purchased in-store or by calling the store at 0843 290 8549.
To mark the launch of the Britain issue, Granta invites you to Waterstones Piccadilly for a festive evening of readings and conversation to explore the stories that Britain is telling about itself today. Authors joining us for this event and drinks reception with Britain contributors including Adam Foulds, A.L. Kennedy, Jamie McKendrick and Andrea Stuart. The discussion will be moderated by Granta editor John Freeman. This event also marks the start of a UK-wide events series hosted in collaboration with Waterstones.