Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner was played at my mother’s funeral a few years back. It was very appropriate for her, because although for the last few years of her life she moved to the Isle of Man to be near us, she saw herself as very much a Londoner. She was fiercely proud of it, would defend London as the best city in the world – in fact the best place in the world – against anybody.
I was in London myself recently for a few days, cat sitting for a friend of my sisters and getting some quiet time after the complete madness of the past few months. It was as hot as Hades and I spent a few days with my sister catching up, being a tourist and getting sore feet after which she went home and I was alone and peaceful with Monty the cat. My intention wasto catch up on a lot of admin jobs that I’ve left for too long and then to get a really good way into my new Regency novel. It was a lovely flat with a balcony and the temptation to doze in the sun with Monty was huge, although I did try to resist.
It’s always odd being back in London. I’m not so familiar with this part, but we took a bus out through the East End where I grew up, to Stratford and then went on to Canary Wharf and had lunch by the river. In my childhood, Stratford was our local shopping centre and Canary Wharf was a place we simply didn’t go – it consisted of rotting and boarded up warehouses with a few dingy businesses still struggling on. I’ve watched the evolution of docklands through my life and it’s been a fascinating process.
Despite being born and raised in the East End, I’m not really a city person. I don’t mind small towns; Douglas is about right for me. But I love the countryside and the coast, the feeling of fewer people and wider spaces and not feeling trapped. I don’t think I’d ever choose to live full time in a city again, especially a city as overcrowded as London now is.
Nevertheless – and maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – I actually do still love London. It’s the place of my birth and my childhood. I love the history and the parks and the odd little corners that many people never visit. I was so lucky as a child to have parents who adored both history and walking. Every Sunday, unless the rain was torrential, we were dragged out to the number 8 bus stop at the end of the road, to “go for a walk”. This did not mean a twenty minute stroll through a park. It meant a four or five hour marathon through parts of London I would never have known existed.
We walked through the City and listened to my mother’s stories of the blitz and of her first jobs in old fashioned offices, learning the switchboard and typing on an old fashioned typewriter. We wandered through the Inns of Court and the world of legal London, with my Dad stopping to read every plaque on every wall. We discovered hidden gems like the Museum of the Order of St John and Postman’s Park. On wet days we did every museum in London including ones I’ve forgotten even existed. We went into obscure but beautiful churches which were always open to visitors back then, and if it was late enough in the day we would stay for evensong before getting the bus home. When people ask me why I write historical novels rather than any other kind, I find it hard to answer apart from to say I always loved history. But I know that this is why. At times, wandering through the ancient streets, I would whinge about the fact that my friends from school were all off ice skating or swimming or just hanging out in the street. But Mum was adamant that unless there was a genuine reason not to (like a broken leg – arms didn’t count, I once saw her scale the cliffs at Hastings with her arm in a sling) we would all go out together on Sundays. Church, Sunday lunch, walk or other outing and then home for tea and whichever series was on TV on Sundays. Saturdays were ours; on Sundays we belonged to her.
As I grew older the rule relaxed, but by then she didn’t have to nag me, I was hooked. At secondary school by then, I visited exhibitions relevant to whatever I was studying, sometimes with the school but sometimes on my own. I would think nothing – and still don’t – about taking myself off to the British Museum on a free day. A boat trip down to Hampton Court or Greenwich was a joy. I loved the Cutty Sark and the Tower of London – just wandering around outside them was enough. And I adored – and will always adore – the River Thames, where my parents did a lot of their courting.
All of this came from a family with very little. We lived, for the first thirteen years of my life, in an old rented house with no bathroom or indoor toilet. We washed in the kitchen sink and bathed in an old fashioned tin bath by the oil stove in the kitchen because there was no central heating. We ate healthily but with few luxuries on a daily basis although it made a meal out for a birthday or the extra treats at Christmas incredibly special.
When we moved to a council maisonette when I was thirteen, it was luxury. I can remember squabbling over who would be the first to use the new bath until we realised my mother was already in it. Curiously, we missed our old fashioned house; the new place had no garden. My parents were good managers and saved for their old age but we didn’t have that much stuff.
What we did have was experiences. We had one week’s holiday every year, always in the UK but always somewhere special. When we were small we went to holiday camps a lot as they were cheap and there was entertainment but as we got older we rented cottages and we explored Devon and Cornwall, the Lakes and Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Scotland. We did it all by coach and bus and train; they had no car.
We went to the cinema to see every good new film going. We went to the London Palladium to see the Pantomime every Christmas. If there was a school trip to anywhere, they would find the money for us to go. My love of music came from endless school trips to concerts, the opera, and to hear Gilbert and Sullivan. My love of good plays and literature came from school trips to the Young Vic and Stratford upon Avon. They had never been abroad, but I went to Russia at sixteen with the school because my Dad did overtime to pay for it.
I’m aware as an adult of everything they did for us and everything they sacrificed so that we could absorb as many different experiences as they could afford to give us. It’s not that surprising that we both did so well. But I don’t think they thought it was that much of a sacrifice, I think they loved doing all these things with us, enjoyed introducing us to the city they both loved.
They were poor when we were young, got more comfortable as we grew up and travelled a bit more, spent more on themselves although they still never had a car or bought a house. They ate out a lot, discovered different cuisines and enjoyed it. They both still walked until arthritis and old age prevented them. But they never resented poverty or saw themselves as victims. They were never angry. They simply worked out what was important to them and what they could easily do without and if they needed more they worked a bit harder to get it.
They weren’t political although they never failed to vote, but they both voted on issues rather than blind loyalty to a party so at different times they voted for all three main parties. My mother voted for Margaret Thatcher simply on the grounds that it was time there was a woman in charge. She was a feminist without ever knowing what the word meant, or caring. My father voted Labour that year. Neither of them cared what anybody else voted. Their friends and family could be Labour or Tory or Liberal or nothing at all. It was considered rude to get personal about such matters as religion or politics. They were old enough to appreciate the welfare state, the NHS and any help they were given. They were gracious about it, didn’t see it as a right, said thank you when help was given. During the IRA bombings they continued to take us to all the same places, do all the same things. We missed the Ideal Home Exhibition bomb by a few minutes only, but there was no sense of anxiety. We were in London and that city belonged to us, not the bombers.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. But when I’m back here, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much I know that I’d never come back to live here now, I still feel a very primitive sense of belonging. This is my city, my home, my childhood. I feel an enormous sense of familiarity and of love and gratitude both to the people who raised me and the city that shaped all of us. I’ve lived in many places now and loved a fair few of them. But when I come back to London, I know I’ve come home.