I am now going to take you back through the mists of time to December 2004, when a magical thing called ‘internet’ was finally installed in the hellhole that was Chaos House East. We were beyond overjoyed when this happened, despite the fact that it could only be accessed in one small room, down seven flights of stairs in the basement. There were no desks or chairs – I can only presume this was because Chaos House was spending all of it’s budget on keeping the ceilings from caving in, so we all had to sit cross-legged on the floor in a big antisocial semi-circle facing the walls, as we tapped away on our devices. Once connected, via a process that seemed to involve slotting big metal cards into things, you could enter this joyous new world of browsing Friends Reunited or creating little cartoon avatars of yourself. Endless fun. Also, there was Google, for that niggling side task of essay research. Although personally I was very psyched that the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had finally become manifest, as Google made all the difference on those days when you’d got to the library only to discover that everyone else had taken out the relevant titles before you’d had a chance to. And for those of us who were too poor to buy a bunch of new books for every essay we wrote, the internet became pretty indispensable.
Indeed back then, it could feel like technology was ahead of it’s ability to actually function much of the time. For this was the year of the iPod, and as soon as I saw those super-trendy Apple posters with the dancing silhouette against the coloured backdrop, I knew this was something totally different. Something so achingly, fantastically cool, that I just had to own one. They had a bit of a whopping price tag back in the day, but I was absolutely adamant that if an iPod was the only thing I had for Christmas that year, I could die happy, and so my wish came true. I was overjoyed to unpack that quirky little colourful cube and finally be able to caress that shiniest of shiny white devices, with it’s revolutionary scrolling wheel that you barely had to touch. I was an Apple devotee from that day on, as I found this thing undeniably sexier than all the other artless, clunky-buttoned music players that had preceded it. “What’s an iPod?” enquired my friend at Aberyswtyth uni, while I inwardly beamed with joy at my new-found metropolitan trendiness.
There was one problem though. The thing would not work.
Little did I or my mother realise, that iPods would only hang out with the cool kids, and Windows 98 was not one of those. Nor did my £50 second-hand laptop cut the mustard. An entire operating system upgrade was required, as well as some new hardware that had to be installed by A Man Who Knows What He’s Doing, before I could finally plug the thing in and get some music on it, around a month later. Until then I just had to be content with playing Solitaire on it’s black and white screen, as I cuddled it lovingly at night. Life is unfair…
Living in London certainly changed me a lot, and it probably helped that being just 18, I was at that age where self-identity is relatively plastic, and you haven’t yet set your views or preferences in stone. As a result I found it fairly effortless to evolve from a considerably naive, unworldly country girl to someone who knew all the trendiest shops on Oxford Street and felt right at home in the hustle and bustle of it all. I started eating sushi, and discovered that it might actually be my favourite food. I learned to navigate the underground tube system no problem, so I could never get lost again. I loved how it felt so enlivening to come out of a big cinema in Leicester Square at night, to find yourself surrounded by all the glittering lights and noise, and all the people wanting to sell you things. London seemed to want to seduce you, and I was entirely game.
I came back at Christmas a different person. For the first time in my life the doddering slowness of people in my home-town frustrated me. I had become well adjusted to the fast paced London pedestrian mode, otherwise known as the art of the Dodge ’n’ Swerve, which was thoroughly necessary for not getting repeatedly bashed into by hurried commuters. Back home nobody seemed particularly busy at all, and seemed to think nothing of standing ponderously in your way in supermarket aisles. It irked me no end – why won’t people move? This was culture shock in reverse and it came as quite a surprise to me. When I went to bed at night it felt silent, cold and dark compared to London, where there was always that constant rumble to remind you of humanity’s ceaseless need to be doing things. Where the clouds would glow faint orange in the night sky. It had become oddly comforting to be surrounded by the distant noise of so many other lives.
London living had a big downside for me however, and I discovered this after spending a couple of weeks suffering from a persistent wheezy cough, that just would not go away. It was particularly bad at night when I was trying to get to sleep, and drove my room-mate Arlene so crazy that she eventually insisted that I ditch the cough medicine and book myself in to see a doctor, as soon as humanly possible. The doctor informed me that my asthma was taking a turn for the worse, and prescribed me a daily steroid inhaler. Once I began taking this, the cough cleared up in no time, but I found it concerning nonetheless that the city pollution was having such an effect on my health.
My asthmatic cough had probably not been helped by my insistence on constantly wearing a furry warm scarf that I’d recently purchased from Topshop. It was bottle green with frayed ends and I was so overwhelmed by its sheer stylishness that I would always keep it on during lectures, after removing my coat. No matter how hot and stuffy it was indoors, I kept that thing on. Along with a black beret. I was under the impression that this scarf/beret combo endowed me with a certain ’très bohemienne’ flair, but in reality, I just looked like a bit of a pretentious tit.
Pretentious can seemingly get you noticed however, as I was soon to discover while in Harrods one day. You’re probably wondering what an impoverished student was doing, mulling around in Harrods, and to be honest, so am I. I recall I would go in and have a good browse of everything, but ultimately this would only result in the purchase of some small affordable item. Mainly my visits were due to the fact that here was located the only place in the entire United Kingdom that you could buy Krispy Kreme donuts. I adored these, in all their diabetes-inducing, chocolate-glazed, custard-filled glory and thus I became a bit of a regular. In fact after a while, I started to feel rather at home in Harrods. I would nonchalantly glide up the gilded Egyptian escalator like this was a regular occurrence in my life. I became so at home there in fact, that one day I got recognised.
“Hello! I know you from somewhere” gushed the sales assistant to me, “I feel like I’ve seen your face before!” Wait, was she implying that I was in some way… famous? Did I really look that nonchalant on the escalator? This was the point at which I pondered about pretending to be the estranged daughter of some ageing celebrity rockstar, just to find out what perks this may yield, but instead I just gleefully declared that I was nothing more than a frequent shopper. I have no idea who she thought I was, but it was one of those little things that made my day. I bet that beret and scarf had something to do with it though…
One of the most valuable experiences of student life for me, had to be the opportunity for cultural exchange with the many international students that I met there. Arlene, my room-mate was from Wyoming in the USA, and we shared a kitchen with Italians, Canadians, Chinese, Belgians, Brits and other Americans. The Italians would always get together and cook a big hearty meal, then share it out between themselves and make their dining a very social experience. Meanwhile, I would quietly bung my instant Dolmio pasta and sauce in the microwave, eat it quietly and go, hoping nobody noticed my general culinary ineptitude. Around November, the Americans started to get a bit homesick. It was time for Thanksgiving, but over here, Thanksgiving was not a thing, and so my room-mate was feeling rather glum about this. “What exactly is Thanksgiving?” I asked, and so she explained it to me, while I nodded and smiled and entirely failed to get it. “So… it’s kind of a big pre-Christmas, Christmas, right? Where you just eat and eat until you’re stuffed and have a big party?”
The kitchens of the house would often hold themed parties, and so it was decided that our particular kitchen would hold a Thanksgiving party, so the Americans could celebrate. What they hadn’t quite anticipated was that this party would be gatecrashed by many happy, confused Europeans, who wanted in on this mysterious celebratory event. Personally, me being me, I was in it for the food – we all had to cook something as a contribution, so I made a big cheese and mushroom pie from a recipe. The actual traditional Thanksgiving food however, was surprisingly alien to me. Arlene made a pumpkin pie and something called ‘orange Jello salad’, which, much to my confusion, did not contain anything that remotely resembled salad. It was more like a jelly with dream topping, and I scoffed rather a lot of this. I also had my very first taste of the wonders of cookie dough, causing me to wonder why in my nation we had been making the mistake of actually baking the stuff for so long.
The main highlight of this glorious food fest was of course, the roast turkey, and here is where things get a bit weird. “We must put stickers up everywhere” Arlene announced to me, “they sent me turkey stickers from home”.
“They sent you what?”
“Turkey stickers. We need to stick them all over the kitchen”.
And apparently, this is the Thanksgiving equivalent to Christmas decorations. And so it came to pass that our kitchen became resplendent with turkeys. Up the walls, on the doors, beaming through the window panes at confused passers by. It did strike me as a bit strange really, since the turkeys seem to be the ones who get the least out of this national holiday. Yet the very act of covering the walls in images of happy joyous ones, seemed to nullify their necessary murder into an act of noble sacrifice. Which always helps when you’re eating one.
I am the permed creature in the middle.
We had a great party with a table choc-full of tasty food and I was especially pleased when everyone devoured my pie, as it seemed that perhaps I could cook after all, I just needed to start trying. I have really great memories of that day, and can I also recall that no matter how many times we Europeans would ask “so, what exactly is Thanksgiving?”, we were always still amusingly none the wiser after the answer. Not that it particularly mattered to us anyway, as we rolled our fat, happy selves back up the six staircases to bed that night. Sometimes fun is all the reason you need for a party.
When Christmas finally rolled around, we also got our chance to confuse the other international students. We would be out dancing in the pub, when the introductory chimes of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ would begin, during which it was fun to watch the bewildered and amused looks on their faces, as every single Brit in the place leapt crazed onto the dance floor, exclaiming “YESSSSS!!” I maintain that nobody can quite do a pissed-up Christmas disco like the Brits. We would all bounce around like lunatics, to the songs that had defined this season for us since childhood, all yelling “IT’S CHRIIIIIIISTMAAAAASSSS!!!” in unison with Noddy. We must have looked like nutters, but when you’re high on life it becomes contagious and you cease to care.
With exposure to other cultures, comes a certain amount of exchange. Arlene decided she was going to start wearing shirts like I did, as apparently the “British dress smart”. From her, I learned a great deal more though. I was in our kitchen having my dinner one day, while she and another student on our course were chatting about American politics. As their discussion went on, I began to realise that I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, and this would happen rather often. While I took a great interest in UK politics, for the most part I was only educated insofar as I knew what school and college had taught me to memorise. My home life was not exactly a mind-expanding one, as I spent most of my time playing keyboard or watching soaps. We never travelled anywhere or had particularly interesting discussions, and so I sat there feeling rather invisible and stupid as they debated Republicans versus Democrats and those crucial swing states.
That night when we were back in our rooms, I asked Arlene to explain what it was all about to me, and so she drew at little map of the USA so I could see where all the states were, and she explained the differences between the two political sides. Once I understood it all, I began taking a keen interest in the election and we would go down to the main lounge to watch it on the TV in the evenings. It was George Bush versus John Kerry and we were both rooting for Kerry (though Arlene had to pretend to her Republican relatives back home that she was voting for Bush). I am still very grateful to her for taking the time to teach me all that. I really feel that schools should be doing so much more to give all kids a rounded political education, especially in this current climate. Since we all can vote, we should all be able to understand those systems that we are voting in – even in other countries, since it’s all connected.
I also learned that some cultural elements remain completely impossible to pass on. Such as how to coach a British person to say ‘dang it’ like an American. She tried bless her, she tried…
But although we had tremendous fun at times, there were cracks that were there from the start and as time progressed, I could no longer ignore these. As much as I got along with Arlene, I have always been a very private, introverted person and I was never comfortable with sharing a room. Arlene was a rather messy person and so you could literally make out the line down the middle of it where our halves divided. The constant socialising was hard to cope with and I struggled to concentrate on doing my work with another person always there. I tried to speak to the accommodation services about this, but nobody seemed to have any time for me. The first thing you realise when you’re in London is that you’re just another human out of thousands and everyone is always too busy. Unless you’re paying them of course. I also used to play my keyboard every day back home and I’d got pretty good. I couldn’t do this here and I missed being musical so much. It was the stress reliever I desperately needed, as my anxiety disorder was rapidly spiralling out of control.
I had become entranced at the idea of joining the universities’ Television Society, as everyone had become a member of some society at this point. Arlene had her swim meet, our other friend had the LGBT society, while others went to language classes. I needed a club, and television sounded fantastic. In fact, I started to become more excited about this than my actual degree subject. That here was the perfect gateway into a glittering television career, right here in the city of media that is London. I’d got an A in Drama GCSE, therefore I could act, I reasoned. All I would need to do is join the society, hone my performance skills and get fabulous. Fame surely awaited me. I couldn’t contain my excitement at this opportunity. If I only I could just pluck up the courage to walk into that room. I stood there, in front of the door labelled ‘Television Society Meeting’, and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t know anyone in there and so fear rushed in to sabotage my life once more. After agonising in front of that door for a few seconds, I turned around and walked away. It felt awful. Like I wanted to live so badly, but my something in my brain wasn’t letting me.
London itself could also be a pretty insane place to live, and the sheer, relentless speed of the place was starting to wear me out. With my social anxiety at peak levels, the crunch point finally came when we were required to make an individual presentation in front of the whole class. I dreaded presentations like you would not believe and the thought of having to stand up and talk in front of everyone filled me with nausea. In the weeks that were running up to it, I dreaded it night and day, yet it never occurred to me to talk to someone for support about this or to see a doctor and get some medication. I didn’t even know this was an option and I was very much in denial about my condition, inventing all manner of reasons why it might be a good idea for me to drop out in order to pursue some other course of success in life.
It was after returning back from the Christmas holiday in January, with the big presentation looming, knowing that I would be stuck there sharing a room for at least another whole term in that chaotic place, that I just could not cope any longer. The panic attacks and lack of privacy were doing me in, so I finally decided that I had no choice but to drop out of university entirely. This required me having to undergo the equally terrifying experience of sitting in front of the university Provost to explain my decision, but explain I did, as somehow I had actually managed to convince even myself that this was a decision based on positive reasoning and not one based on fear. So I told him something about needing a gap year in order to expand my horizons, finding London too overwhelming and wanting to perhaps apply to Cambridge or Oxford instead afterwards. Despite my obvious nervousness I think I managed to convince him that I had my illustrious future all planned out, and so he signed me off then and there and that was that. I went back to the House of Chaos, hugged all my friends, packed my suitcase, heaved it painfully down each individual step of all 6 staircases and then caught the next train home.
At no point on that four hour return journey did I ever feel like I’d made a mistake. In fact, the relief at finally being able to free myself from all that anxiety (and the presentation) was immense. As the train was briskly clattering it’s way through the Welsh countryside, I sat there joyously gulping in the fresh air, incredulous that this had been something I’d taken for granted my whole life. Some things you can’t put a price on. As for my family, they were surprisingly accepting of my decision to drop out, providing I got myself a job as soon as possible. So needless to the say, neither the gap year nor Oxbridge materialised. I spent the last chunk of my student loan on a super fancy Roland keyboard, under the belief that I was the next Jean Michel Jarre waiting to be discovered. That never materialised either. Within the month I was working in a factory, and after a hard day’s grind in one of those, you come home way too tired to work on becoming a pop star in your free time.
I may have left London but London stayed with me, and 12 years on, I still feel like it’s never left. It’s almost as if when you’ve been in such a huge place for long enough, your mind expands accordingly. That’s not to say people from small places have small minds, but I did feel very different living in the big city. Like I was a functional part of this larger, successful world, rather than just a spectator of it, and naturally that affects your thinking and how you interact with the world.
It was in the July of that same year that tragedy struck and London’s public transport was bombed in a series of terror attacks. These occurred troublingly close to where I had lived, and on routes I’d regularly travelled. Although all the students would have been on their summer holiday at the time, it shook me up a great deal, that terrorism could literally happen so close to home. Plus the fact that my grandparents might actually be right about some things…
As for me, life went on and after four years of working random jobs, I did finally return to university. This time it was art college, closer to home and a distinctly more relaxed affair than London, being refreshingly free from the big egos and sharp elbows. I enjoyed my time there very much, and completed the full 3 years, gaining a first class degree, lots of great memories and the father of my child. But I guess that’s another story, for another day.
Despite it all, there’s a part of me that would kill to have my time in London once more. For my life to be once again that jam-packed with fun, friends, intellectualism and chaos. Perhaps most of all I miss feeling successful, and how that shines a kind of sunshine over everything you do. Just writing all of this has really hit home to me how our youth really is over in a flash. But how long we choose to feel young for, well I guess that’s up to us. I still enjoy reading my UCL alumni magazine when it comes through my letterbox, and I will remain forever grateful for the experiences that I had there.