Friday, 16 December 2011

Finding one's place in the big city and finding the people who make you want to stay there

Life in the big city is anonymous and unfriendly. So say many people who don't live in cities, so do a few who do. I have had friends who came to university here in London who would certainly endorse that statement. Yet I would contend it depends entirely on which area of a city in which you are. Many of London's more commercial areas would be odd places to live. When househunting I looked at a flat (well, dark dungeon beneath a pub actually) in Clerkenwell which I rejected mostly on the revelation that this busy daytime area was almost deserted during weekends, when the office-workers were not at their desks. As my hunt went on I realised that my new flat needed to be in an area where I could feel part of real, 24-hour London life. Somewhere I could be part of a proper community.

And so I came to live in Holloway.  Well, actually in a sort of grey, no-man's land between Holloway and Tufnell Park, but as I am safely within easy reach of Her Majesty's Prison Holloway let's call it Holloway.  My street is the sort of street on which people wash cars at weekends.  (No word of a lie, someone was even sponging away to a radio blasting 'Car Wash' by Rose Royce last week, which made me smile.)  Neighbours clutching newspapers and shopping lean on railings to chat about local goings on, while their dogs do their own catching up, sniffing and tail-wagging.  The church at the end of the road hosts a decorous tea dance one day and an extravagant Ethiopian wedding the next.  

Round the corner lies the Holloway Road, which never sleeps, and not just in terms of the traffic that uses this key artery as a route in and out of London.  Even in the darkest, sleepiest hour of the night people stagger along the pavements or slumber on metal benches.  Late-night kebab shops sell styrofoam boxes of unidentifiable meat to bar-goers who are too drunk to care what they are eating.
By day the road buzzes from the minute that McDonalds opens for McMuffin-purveying business.  It is peopled by stall-holders, shoppers, children trailing along behind their parents, cyclists, runners, coffee-drinkers and tramps drunkenly dozing on benches before 10 o'clock in the morning.  A mixture of high street stores share the commercial floorspace with independently run, uniquely local establishments, including the splendid Selby's; a one-off department store with an excellent kitchenware department and a hidden branch of Cafe Nero in which I have passed many Saturday mornings working on university assignments.

People greet those they recognise, often they greet those they don't.  On the whole they're a friendly bunch in N7.  In shops, assistants offer genuine assistance rather than the customary sneer and disinterest in attaining customer satisfaction.  After I had bought a vast, heavy box of cookware from Selby's the charming lady who rang it through the till offered to call me a cab to make sure I got my purchase safely home.  I recently ordered my new bathroom floor (having spent the last month stripping both the hideous old tiles from the floorboards and the first layer of skin from my hands in the process) from a business which has been run from Holloway for 51 years.  Not once was I patronised when I ambitiously talked about laying it myself, nor was I chivied or sighed at whilst I spent an eternity comparing samples and changing my mind about which option I wanted.  'Seeing as how I was just round the corner' the fitters even kindly agreed to get it all in by Christmas.  The perks of being a local!

Holloway, if one was to be brutally honest, is not the most charming of London's areas when it comes to its architecture or greenery.  It is an ecclectic mix of large terraced houses and even larger, bleak-looking council blocks, shameful post-war offices and modern geometric education buildings.  The small parks which exist are not going to win any horticultural medals any time soon.  It is clearly the people with whom I now share this place who make it such an interesting and enjoyable place to live.
During the riots over the summer, Holloway was surrounded by neighbouring areas that witnessed looting and rampaging youths.  Yet within our little area there was an unexpected aura of calm, a feeling that any approaching violence would not be able to cross our invisible postcode boundary line.  There was a powerful feeling of community repelling any form of threat to our shared security; a sort of shield around the houses and blocks of flats, around the businesses and the people who ran them.  Twitter was alive with messages between strangers who were advising each other of the best way to return home to the area, and people happily and proudly reporting the lack of any trouble.  A local 'HollowayGossip' tweeter even began coordinating the plans for a post-riot street party for the whole community.

Whilst I am all too aware that a vast city full of strangers can be an oddly lonesome place to live and work, from my time in London I have certainly learnt that it is the people rather than the buildings and infrastructure who make a city.  Whether they make it fun or dull, fast-paced or desperately slow, friendly or scary, their individual energies and attitudes alter each area, and thus every new inhabitant's experiences within them.  Two years ago, when I first contemplated searching for a new flat I would have not known where Holloway even was in London.  If someone had described it to me I think I would not have thought it sounded very appealing.  But someone asked me a few months back if I could choose to live anywhere in the city, exorbitant housing costs aside, where I would live, and I thought long and hard before replying, 'Here.  Where I am now - Holloway.'  And I really meant it.  


  1. Nice post. I have the same feeling about bow, as we had a simler situation when the riots were going on.

    I find the city as a whole not unfriendly, but more to busy to care. I will have lived hear for 2 years in February. But most of my friendships are from others whom I have met over the years who are also in london. Its a very difficult city for make acquaintances, unless your concisely trying. Which perhaps I should be doing more.

  2. It sounds like a perfect fit! And yes, no matter where in the world you are, it's the people who make the place home.

  3. A match made in heaven then! I feel the same way about my street in Pimlico actually. There is something about belonging to a London community. Maybe we have caught the London virus?

  4. Thanks, Escooler. Think you may be right about making the conscious effort. The city holds loads of cool and friendly people but you do have to seek them out sometimes. Interesting though that you felt similarly during the riots about your own area.

    Hi to you, Loerzels! I bet you must find a similar situation out in Rabat - although I can imagine it's even more of a challenge to fit in somewhere when the whole country is unfamiliar let alone a small city area.

    Even I feel that way about Pimlico, MuMuGB! It's a charming little place...I can see why it's captured your heart.

  5. This nearly brought a tear to my eye! Here's to North London and locals - cheers! x

  6. As another North Londoner, Ariel, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about!

  7. You must be a neighbour of mine - I love it here! When I moved into my flat I was greeted by a hug from my neighbour whose son was in my class at primary school and who I hadn't seen in years (we are both refugees from Kentish Town!). I love the neighbourly feeling, the local characters (man running with dog in tiny shorts!) and the beautiful ginger children who live opposite. And the fact that I can give blood on my own road 3 times a year and not have to go all the way into town. I have also heard that we share our little neighbourhood with Suggs!

    (my only gripe is the dog poo and the bad lighting that makes it hard to spot at night!)

  8. Hi, The Audacity of Boats! (nice handle!) I have a feeling I know just the running man (and dog) with tiny shorts you mean - we must be neighbours. I'd heard the rumour about Suggs too...clearly a discerning chap to pick such a great place to live. I completely agree about the lighting too - night-times can be a little too dark for my liking when one's making one's way home.


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