Where's the good life?
1,500 people a week flee cities for the country, and the Government is worried by the exodus. But as `Independent' writers explain, home is a state of mind - not just a place The city: `It wasn't love at first sight,
Wednesday 25 February 1998
It took me a while to appreciate living in the heart of London. It was hardly love at first sight. At first, I ached to see greenery breaking through the overwhelming greyness. After a childhood filled with summers beside the sea, I almost didn't dare imagine going months without seeing the shoreline - when I first arrived aged 22, I actually walked to The Strand, one of London's busiest streets, in the hope of finding some vestige of ocean. I was demoralised to spot not even a seagull.
London seemed a vast, alienating place in which I had lost my bearings. A place of work, not of leisure or pleasure.
Yet, today, I love it. I'm at home and wonder how I could ever leave. What changed about London for me was the discovery that I really live in a village. Except my village isn't struggling to keep its post office, having long ago lost its butcher and baker. I need walk no more than 10 minutes from my front door in Stoke Newington to find almost everything necessary for life. You can fall out of bed and into any number of cafes for breakfasts that go on all day. There's a deli for lunch, more than a dozen restaurants in one street for dinner.
Those with time on their hands can find endless second-hand book shops for browsing, a jazz club for carousing, a flamenco club for dancing. There are shops that will fix your television, cut your hair, mend your clothes, repair your washing machine, massage your body. There is a video store for the mainstream, another for the esoteric. A boutique for thin sophisticates, a singing pub for boozers, smooth bars for trendies.
There is the best of community - you never walk down Stoke Newington Church Street without bumping into friends. But windows don't squint at every coming and going like they do in the country. You can wallow in the anonymity and liberalism of the city. Lesbians raise their children here, living out the legacy of great non-conformists, such as Daniel Defoe, who lived here and are buried in the huge, spooky graveyard full of mausoleums and gay men picking each other up.
There is a sense of history about city life, its ancient buildings and roads, without the preciousness of thatched Tudor cottages. Daniel Defoe's only memorial is the slightly dilapidated Defoe Cabs, whose Ethiopian drivers probably miss the significance of the name. The constant influx of such newcomers provides a diversity and vibrancy which makes the all- white villages of Britain dreary in their monotony, almost scary in their uniformity.
You probably think it's a terrible place to raise children - imagine the drug problems, the discarded syringes. Well, yes, they do find a few in the playground in the mornings. And, yes, you do have to avoid dog dirt on the pavement. But this place is overrun with young children, so we have a wonderful state-of-the-art playground, with lots of swings, roundabouts and climbing frames, built over an all-weather, safe surface. Ask children whether they would prefer to play in a muddy field: you will find a city lover.
Of course, I still miss the sea. There's not much I can do about that. We've covered the garden with pebbles. But there are still no seagulls.
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