10 Years in London

I’ll tell you the reason you couldn’t get home,
Cause there’s nowhere you’ve been and it’s nowhere you’re going,
Home is only a feeling you get in your mind,
From the people you love and you travel beside

Today marks exactly 10 years since I climbed into a white van with three friends and embarked on the long drive to London. One of my most vivid memories of that morning is of my final moments in the flat I shared with my brother in Bridgeton. Looking into the rooms for what felt like one final time (I would of course return for visits) and closing the doors behind me, it felt like the final episode of an American sitcom. “Sorry, we’re closed.”

It was definitely the end of something. I had no idea what was about to begin.

Today lends itself to reflection and taking stock. I’ve already written about my move in the context of one of its primary soundtracks, Confessions on a Dance Floor. As I describe there, my first year or so in London was tough. From the vantage point of a decade later I can look back with some affection at the loneliness which threatened to devour me yet I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Still, things got better. The terror went away and some great people came into my life to steal me from loneliness. Life happened, as it always must. One of the (many) things I had yet to learn back then was that I wasn’t losing a home in Glasgow but rather gaining one in London. A week ago I visited Glasgow for my 36th birthday and I remarked to my boyfriend that it never felt jarring going back; there is never a moment of ‘ok, I’m in Glasgow now’. It just feels like I’m in another part of my home, as effortless as if I’ve just walked from my living room into my bedroom. I know enough about the world to know that I’m very fortunate to be able to say that.

I am getting older now. 36 obviously isn’t old but it’s not an age you can ever imagine being when you’re 14, 20, even 25. When you’re younger there’s always a sense that you’re at the beginning of something; now I understand that life doesn’t work like that. There isn’t some point where you suddenly feel, “ah, this is it! Life is beginning!” Instead you just realise that life has been happening all along – this is what you have, for better or worse. Who you are right now is who you are, not some prototype version of something better. You better make the most of it.

If I’d never imagined being 36, I may have had some vague notion that when I was older I’d be a rock star or a famous writer or the Prime Minister. While there is nothing wrong with these aspirations, I am instead aware of far more mundane achievements which all seemed unimaginable at some point. I am gay, out to my family, friends, work and living with my boyfriend. In Glasgow I had a ‘family lunch’ which included my partner, his brother and his brother’s boyfriend and it didn’t feel in the slightest bit strange or awkward.

To the teenager who used to lie awake in bed and pray to God to make me ‘normal’, that feels like being a rock star.

There have been times in life when I couldn’t imagine having a circle of friends whom I loved, a job which didn’t fill me with dread every day or any money to do things which I enjoy. Things which seem quite small, really, yet are so, so big. I made what felt like an earth-shattering move to London and ten years later I find myself living a pretty average life, finding happiness in lying beside my boyfriend in bed and reading a book. The little things… there’s nothing bigger, is there?

Life is never movie perfect. Sadness, dissatisfaction, boredom and yearning are all things you will always feel to some degree. I think part of adulthood is accepting that and not trying to fight it; not trying to ward off the compromises which inevitably come but facing them head on. I understand that even living a mundane life is a privilege many don’t have and often that’s because of circumstances which are well beyond individual choices. Perhaps I am being trite but while we should never settle for misery,  we should also never fail to appreciate what we may have while we still might have it.

Life moves on and I have no idea where I’ll be in ten years’ time. I always find myself morbidly fascinated by stories of people who tragically die relatively young: I think that, surely, they weren’t so different from anyone else? They were just ordinary people taking each day and then suddenly they were gone. The vast majority won’t be remembered by anyone other than those around them whom they loved and were loved by, if they had anyone at all. So I return again to the little things and the prosaic joy of a rainy Sunday.


(This image is from the brilliant Strike Magazine, which I strongly encourage you to buy. I think it’s from Tilley and Del the Piggie)

Today is my boyfriend’s birthday and I’m off work. We’re going to walk up Primrose Hill and then meet some friends in a pub. Tomorrow, fittingly, there is an all-day Madonna party in Soho. I’ll get drunk, dance and come home to slump on the sofa. I couldn’t think of a better way to mark my decade in London.

Confessions on a Dance Floor

My final weeks living in Glasgow in the run up to April 2006 are a haze of nervous excitement and ‘oh my God what am I doing?’ fear. Being a working-class guy who lived at home during university and then moved in with my brother, moving hundreds of miles away to London for no particular reason was a Very Big Deal and I had no idea how (or if) I would cope. I can’t even remember what I did on my final evening in Glasgow – in my mind climbing into the rented white van, which my friend drove down to London on April 1st, is almost a Year Zero. My memories from before then feel different because life was different. I was different.

One of the evenings I most vividly remember involved going to a gig at the University of Glasgow student union with my brother and then rushing home to see Madonna’s new video, Sorry. The song’s parent album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, had come out the previous November and quickly proved to be ubiquitous. I had been sitting in Delmonica’s, the main gay bar, the evening after Hung Up had first been played when the DJ said that he had a treat for everyone: “Time goes by, so slowly…” Back then, to hear a song played in a bar immediately after its release felt shocking and exciting. It also made me anxious as the same DJ had played American Life on its release and rubbished it. I wanted Madonna to do well and felt a rush of relief when he said, “well that’s a lot better than her last rubbish, isn’t it?”

In November I attended a Confessions on a Dance Floor launch party at a short-lived gay bar named Icon (which I later reviewed for a local listings paper). It was a joyous event for what is widely viewed as one of Madonna’s most celebratory albums and I danced all night. Hung Up became a staple of my nights out, a song that (like Crazy In Love, Can’t Get You Out Of Me Head or Toxic before it) was such an undeniable example of pop music at its most thrilling that it elicited gleeful reactions whenever that ticking clock intro was heard.

Given the failure of the ‘difficult’ American Life album it was no surprise that the marketing for Confessions on a Dance Floor emphasised its fun, floor-filling qualities. The album itself was something of a different beast, its lyrical content far more thoughtful and introspective than you would have expected from the advance word (or indeed from Hung Up). One of its main themes has been central to Madonna’s work ever since she introduced herself with a purred “I know you’ve been waiting” and implored listeners to “Come on, take a chance/Get up and start the dance” in 1982: the shortness of life and the need to make it worthwhile. Hung Up finds her telling us there is “no time to hesitate” and that “those who run seem to have all the fun”; the hook of Sorry is the endlessly repeated disdain of “I’ve heard it all before”, suggesting that the crime of her addressee is not so much lying and/or cheating but wasting Madonna’s time by being so boring about it. The counterpoint is found in Push where she celebrates a friend/lover who makes her “go the extra mile” and be “a better version of myself”.  In Confessions (as in Madonna’s entire discography) the dance floor is a place of transformation and transcendence where you are, for an all-too-brief moment, the best that you can be. It’s where you glimpse something better, away from the mundane cruelties of quotidian life; it’s a microcosm of a life spent making your own “place I belong” and staying endlessly curious. You can dance…for inspiration.

This all obviously resonated with me as I struggled with the decision of whether to move to London. I had a good life in Glasgow: a decent job in social work, a strong network of friends whom I loved, little debt. Yet from the moment a friend (living in Oxford at the time) got in touch to say he was moving to London and suggesting I join him, I felt the nagging pull of something more. As is my melodramatic wont I raised the already high stakes of the decision: I would either move to London or I would move out of my brother’s flat and buy somewhere in Glasgow, putting down more permanent roots.

I toed and froed endlessly. I took days off work to just walk around Glasgow and think about what I wanted to do. The thought of moving absolutely terrified me – I am not someone who copes with dramatic change well. If my instinct was to remain, however, that nagging feeling kept me listening to one song from Confessions over and over.

There’s only so much you can learn in one place. The more that I wait, the more time that I waste.

Jump spoke directly to me – to my terror over leaving and to my fear that if I stayed, I would always wonder what might have been. “Are you ready to jump?” almost seemed to mock my insecurities and scream at me, ‘just bloody do it you silly fucker!’ I knew and loved Glasgow – I felt I had conquered it, in a sense. Now London stretched out before me, a new mountain to climb. I felt that I had to prove something to myself: “I can make it alone” looped within me again and again. The day I told my friend that I would come with him even now makes my legs weak – I was going to jump and I didn’t know where or how I would land. The last time I saw my mum before I moved she told me that London would make me a ‘better person’. I was secretly hoping the same.

I moved to London in April with no job and £1000 which had been left to me by my grandfather who had died the previous year. In that first year life rushed past: excitement, yes, but also loneliness like I had never known. My friend and new flatmate quickly found a girlfriend whom he spent most of his time with; I worked intermittent temp jobs, got more and more in debt and spent most of my time in a cramped flat with a single-bed and no internet access. Sometimes I sat at a table in the living room and cried, wondering what on earth I was doing there and why. Still, constantly in the background, its songs playing in every gay bar and club, its videos always on the wall at G-A-Y, was Confessions on a Dance Floor and its urge to push through that loneliness, that fear, to something better. Because that is life and some day the music will stop.

Madonna’s Confessions tour came to London in August that year. She had never played Scotland and going to London to see her had previously seemed impossible but, as tantalisingly close as I was, I couldn’t possibly afford to go. The first night she played I was sitting on the sofa feeling a bit miserable when the phone rang. It was an American friend I had recently made, a gregarious explosion of a person who had a love heart tattooed on his neck. He was back in America at the time and had decided to call just for a chat. Afterwards I had the widest grin, elated that this person who had so recently been a stranger cared about me. I allowed myself to think, “maybe this is going to be okay.”

And it is okay. Now I am fortunate enough to be able to afford seeing Madonna. Twice, in fact – I am seeing her in London and then, for the first time, in Glasgow. Seeing her there, 10 years after she helped me take the jump which led to this point, I’ll allow myself a moment of pride. Because things aren’t ‘okay’ in the way these stories are supposed to be in fiction; I didn’t one day reach this plateau of contentment after which everything was fine. The exact opposite, in fact: I came to understand that the nagging which had spurred me to London was part of being alive and would only vanish when it was over. I made some friends, found a job and eventually came to consider London my home. The place I belong, no matter how difficult it can sometimes be. “You know it won’t last long and all those lights they will turn down.”  In the meantime, you can dance.


The Best in Us

Any gay person will recognise, on a visceral level, the dynamic around the ‘little things’ which Panti Bliss describes in this video. We will also recognise what she says later about it becoming so commonplace that you almost become inured to it. You almost forget that it happens and how ugly it is.

When the awful Glasgow lorry crash happened one of the big responses to it was a wave of sentiment and self-love over Glasgow and its people. ‘People Make Glasgow’ goes the slogan and it’s something which has more and more become part of the city’s view of its own character, especially over the past year when its status as ‘Yes City’ led many to be convinced that its people simply ‘care more’ about the weakest in society. This made me very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable not in some detached rational sense but in a visceral way. When I thought about why this was, I found myself returning to when I lived in Glasgow and could not go a single day without at least one person shouting homophobic abuse at me. Literally every single morning as I walked to work, the local school children would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. Literally every time I went out wearing colourful headphones or dressed ‘alternatively’ (I used to do a fine Jarvis Cocker impression) people would shout ‘poof’ and ‘bender’ at me. And I did become inured to it. I realised I had become inured to it when I moved to London and, on my first morning there, found myself passing a group of teenagers just hanging around on the street. Instinctively I shrunk within myself, staring at the pavement and focusing just on getting past them. Then what I dreaded happened: one of the kids said ‘Hey mate!’ to get my attention. I knew what came next – the mocking, the slurs and the laughing – so I kept walking in silence. Then he shouted again, more loudly. Ok, I thought, I might as well just get this over with. I looked up at him. He said ‘I love your outfit!’ and that was that. I stood there for a second, stunned. I mumbled ‘thanks’ and then hurried off.

I swear every word of that is true and I will never forget it because it made me realise just how numb I had become to it. I of course know that what I experienced in Glasgow was perpetrated by a minority of people and happens all over the UK (and beyond) – including in London. I of course know that the racist abuse which followed my Korean friend around the streets, including one horribly memorable day when a couple of kids ran alongside us in the park shouting racial slurs and I felt disgustingly impotent, is an example of the racism which is deeply embedded in our society. These issues are not Glasgow’s alone. Yet when I see people in Glasgow congratulating themselves on how special, tolerant and kind they are I can’t help but return to those daily slights which still make me shrink into myself in certain situations and be disgusted at the conceitedness. Because when we view ourselves in the most idealised light possible we not only lose the capacity to recognise, understand and change the worst in ourselves, we also lose the ability to listen to criticism which contradicts us. This is true of Glasgow, which has no particularly monopoly on human kindness and has a panoply of problems. This is true of London, which fancies itself as a cut above ‘the provinces’. And it’s true of Paris and wider ‘Western democracy’, which right now is indulging in delusional and dangerous masturbatory fantasies of our own superior ‘civilisation’ and ‘values’ (go here for the best response to this I’ve seen).

The worse in humanity which we experience and, crucially, which we perpetrate is nothing but endless cruelties if we do not always strive for an honest, brutal self-awareness. The playwright John Steppling here describes fascism as “deposits of cruelty sedimented in the psyche”. This resonated with me because it perfectly captures why the tendency to always think the best of ourselves/our cities/our cultures is so dangerous – it leaves the cruelty festering, unexamined and untouched. That’s why responses to the Paris atrocity which seek to understand, to lend context, are not ‘apologism’ – they are absolutely essential if we truly aspire to be better than we are. My Twitter bio is a quote from Hannah Arendt, an intellectual who experienced her own accusations of ‘apologism’ when she attempted to understand Eichmann and the Nazis. I will end here with it as I think it sums up that, whether it’s applied to homophobia, wider social justice or great questions of ‘civilisation’, the only way we can ‘progress’ is by seeking to recognise and understand ourselves at our worst, however uncomfortable that may be. We must not allow ourselves to be inured:

And to think always means to think critically. And to think critically is always to be hostile. Every thought actually undermines whatever there is of rigid rules, general convictions, et cetera. Everything which happens in thinking is subject to a critical examination of whatever there is. That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. . . . nonthinking is even more dangerous. I don’t deny that thinking is dangerous, but I would say not thinking is even more dangerous.