‘There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.’ ― Lennon/McCartney
From the age of 18 I visited London about twice a year. It was different to the places I called home at that time – more expansive and permissive than Dhaka, and more sticky around the edges than Boston. I had close friends in London, and there was always something fascinating to discover – both about the city and myself when I was in it.
Ticket to Ride
It was a place where 21-year-old friends would watch with engrossed earnestness a television documentary about Victorian kitchens before going out to dance all night at a club. It was a city where lives would cross, because it was the centre of the world and people were always passing through, pausing between adventures to have another while there. In the years I carried a blank notebook where I sketched and jotted down musings, a trip to London would have me filling up the pages swiftly, ferocious inspiration at every corner and every conversation. I never felt more alive than when I was in London.
After nearly 10 years as a loyal visitor, I moved my base to the UK. I got married to a Londoner. I familiarised myself with the country’s political scene and its players, read Private Eye and watched Question Time, struggled to understand nuances of British society and culture, went on marches to protest against wars, and never, ever complained about the NHS (even when, as on one occasion, they administered general anaesthesia then woke me up and told me to go home as the surgery had been rescheduled).
Just as I hadn’t questioned changing my name back after my divorce, I didn’t think to leave London either. That is, until it no longer felt like the London under whose spell I had fallen. Friends moved away and I was myself in and out of the city, not embracing it fully of its many wonders. Its detached vastness and non-judgment, qualities that had nurtured my ever-hungry desire to learn and grow, felt more and more like a cold, flat plain where I could die in my flat and nobody would realise for weeks. After 14 years, I moved out of London six months ago.
With a Little Help from My Friends
So it was particularly interesting to go back to London last week, and once again as a visitor. An Afghani cab driver told me a joke about a man who had died and gone to heaven, only to leave it for what he thought were pleasures of hell, and then to be told that the pleasures were reserved not for residents but for visitors. The Afghani cab driver and I agreed: London is spectacular for visitors.
I went to London on a specific mission to empty the contents of my storage unit. Not knowing when I’m returning to live there and feeling that even if I did I would prefer to start anew, I donated my old life away.
Everyone asked me how this felt and I possibly disappointed them with my fumbling answer: yes, I guess it is rather a big deal to give away my life’s carefully curated possessions.
Sometimes I think releasing Stuff is much like acquiring it: it’s exciting for about five minutes and then the euphoria fades. But actually, the difference between acquisition and release is profound: the former puts a lingering strain of responsibility on me, and the latter allows me to be open to life’s possibilities. I could, to use my favourite example, fall in love with a man from Costa Rica and move there. That I haven’t yet met any Costa Rican men or, indeed, visited Costa Rica is beside the point. I could. Knowing this is more comforting and exciting than a closetful of shoes.
Sorting my things kept me busy for the first few days, along with seeing several friends. I stayed with a writer and editor whom I had started assisting on various books in between film jobs 15 years ago. Her guidance and light have been instrumental to me at every key stage since I’ve known her.
Staying with her and her husband, I was embraced in a cosy and also fascinating circuit of activity. Their combined network covers much of the globe and the arts. They had another, American, houseguest staying who was constructing various auditory machines for the flat and was my banter partner for the week; a photographer from Iran came by to show his latest work; my host was on BBC’s Start The Week while I was there and preparing a book tour for her latest anthology on Syria. This was in between her cooking us scrumptious vegetarian meals and advising me on my life.
I met up with a really darling friend I’ve known from 18 years ago in Italy, with whom I can pick up exactly where we last left off and never feel a moment’s awkwardness. Her family took me out for lunch at a pricey restaurant modelled on the humble Bombay café; ironies aside, it was the best Indian food I’d had outside South Asia, all of us collapsing with sighs of gratification at every mouthful.
I had dinner with a charming couple at their place, the woman a producer who juggles a busy freelance career, hothouse yoga and frequent continental travel, who still managed to shop for, prepare and cook an elaborate feast with love.
I had my first face-to-face meeting with a poet I’d met through my blog, who felt as cosily familiar to me as a very old and dear friend, despite my not being an instant-friend type of person. We met up several times, each occasion further sealing the ease and affection I felt with and for him.
I had coffee with a former assistant and dear friend who’s quite possibly witnessed me at my very worst (stressed, unkind and unravelling) and still talks nicely with me, which I humbly never forget.
There was a dinner with two women, one from Australia and one from Canada, whom I’d met just before leaving London last September. They were inspiring with their world travels, savoir-faire and inherent warmth and wisdom. I marvelled at how London makes it possible for our paths to cross, connect and bond.
If I were entrepreneurial I’d open a dating agency with all these dynamic personalities under a sign that read, ‘They’re right here: the talented, accomplished, beautiful, kind, charming, very clever single people.’
Here Comes the Sun
Being back in London-the-place was thrilling as well. Despite complaints from locals about pollution, the air felt crisp and clean. I started every morning with putting my head out the window and gulping it down. I had forgotten how much I walk in London. Navigating the city on foot is infinitely more fun than using public transport though that too is excellent.
London can be anything we need it to be. It’s cool enough and secure enough to accommodate all sorts, from the Chelsea women with their cashmere and pearls, to the Shoreditch men wearing tights and frocks. London can transform our imagination into reality – there we become who we believe we are, and who we want to be. For a serial reinventionist, this holds romantic appeal.
Yes, it can be a ruthless and relentlessly consumerist environment that doesn’t suffer fools, but I was in a generous frame of mind. I spent two days in Brighton, and it was immediately obvious how unhurried, polite and friendly everyone was outside the metropolis; but Brighton is overwhelmingly white and middle-class, and I also immediately missed the wide-ranging ethnicities, languages and grit of Londoners.
As a one-foot-out visitor I realised how the best of London is what is best about humanity: nimble, pluralistic, accepting, adaptable, welcoming.
There’s a Place
The second half of the trip was meant to be relaxing, an opportunity to focus on writing. Unfortunately, my history of allergies and my left eye started up again, resulting in spending a day at the hospital and retreating once more into a dark room. It culminated in cancelled plans and appointments, feeling under the weather and, as only a grown-up who has lived alone around the world for most of her life can do, sorely missing my mother.
For a city as sprawling as London it’s tempting to believe that it has no central point, yet it does, and it’s where my hosts live: right smack in the middle of the city. I know now that the riches of a place is only fractionally about my location and far more about the people. So I resisted the temptation to dash about the city, and instead nestled in my hosts’ flat, feeling cocooned and comforted as I tried to recuperate.
Coming on the back of the house move in Dhaka and donating my possessions in London, the space gave me time to catch my breath. And the realisation that now, at last, with nothing hanging over me is when I get to decide: what I want to do with my life and how I want to do it.
I wish I could say that I figured it all out. That I came away with a clean focus and a sharpened strategy. It would be poetically fitting to imagine that I had to come back to my old home of London to see what it was that I was missing in my life, but the only thing I came away with is this:
I am blessed to have so many friends. I am blessed to have many homes. I may feel groundless, but maybe where I live or am based isn’t as important as I think it is. Maybe I belong everywhere.
Maybe my life will be going between the places with which I feel most connected, just as I make a point of keeping in touch with friends I cherish.
Maybe what I do isn’t as important as who I am.
Maybe I don’t need a plan.
‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ ― John Lennon
Of the many British institutions that continue to inform and shape me, nothing has affected me as profoundly as the Beatles. Not only for their superlative music, for being 50% left-handed, for their connections to the four countries closest to me: the UK, India, Bangladesh and the US. But also because they pushed themselves and evolved with each masterful and masterpiece album, releasing an average of two per year, until they disbanded when George Harrison was only 26. Nobody has worked harder, produced better or out-rocked the Beatles.
‘Get back to where you once belonged.’ I listened to a 90-minute collection of the Beatles’ hits on a continuous loop on the plane’s entertainment system for the flight from London back to Dhaka while wiping my fevered brow. From Love Me Do to The End, their music continues to save me.
Watch Imagine: John Lennon. A documentary using footage that Lennon himself had collected for an earlier 1972 version; this 1988 version directed by Andrew Solt captures Lennon’s life and times from an eloquent insider’s perspective.
Watch Backbeat, about Stuart Sutcliffe, the often-called ‘fifth Beatle’ who played bass for the band in Hamburg where they clocked up their potent 10,000-Hour Rule that author Malcolm Gladwell cited as being key to becoming Outliers in their phenomenal success. A new film, The Fifth Beatle, based on a Vivek J Tiwary graphic novel about the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, is in the works. However, it’s unlikely to be as amusing as Eddie Murphy’s 1983 Saturday Night Live skit as the fifth Beatle.