When I was eleven, I formally resigned from the family dream.
From the earliest moment I can recall, the family dream was simple: that, one day, we would get money from somewhere – win the pools, discover a medieval chalice at a jumble sale, or, least likely of all, earn the money – and leave Wolverhampton.
‘When the bomb drops, we want to be on the other side of those,’ Dadda would say, at the end of our street – pointing across the flat fields of Shropshire, to the distant Black Mountains. We practically lived in the country.
‘If they nuke Birmingham, the fallout won’t reach Wales – those mountains are like a wall,’ he would add, nodding. ‘We’ll be safe there. If we get in the van and drive like fuckers, we’d be over the border in two hours.’
It was the mid-eighties, when we knew, for a fact, that the Russians would launch a nuclear war against the West Midlands at some point – the threat was so visceral that Sting even had written a song about it, warning that it would, by and large, be bad – so we were absolutely braced for it.
And so we made our plans for escape. Our dream house was a survivalist bolthole, with its own water supply – a spring, or a well. We’d need enough land to be self-sufficient – ‘Get some polytunnels up, get your fruit in,’ Dadda would say – and we’d have a cellar full of dried grains, and guns – ‘To shoot the looters, when they come. Or commit suicide,’ he added, still cheerfully, ‘if it gets too much.’
The dream house was talked about so much that we all presumed it was real. We would have passionate hour-long arguments about whether to keep goats or cows – ‘Goats. Cows are fussy fuckers’ – and possible names for the property. My mother, who had been made simple by many pregnancies, favoured a ghastly option: ‘The Happy House’. My father didn’t want to give it a name – ‘I don’t want any bastard to be able to find us in the phone book. Come the Apocalypse, I’m not going to be feeling sociable.’
We were poor – which was a normal thing; everyone we knew was poor – so we all made each other Christmas presents, and that Christmas – Christmas 1986 – I had drawn a picture of The Dream Survivalist House, as a present to my parents.
Because it was just a drawing, I had spared no expense on this house: there was a swimming pool in the garden and an orchard at the back. The front room was painted the colour of a peacock’s wing, all the children had their own bedroom, and Krissi’s had a slide in it that went out of the window, and straight into his own fairground. The house was magnificent.
My mother and father looked at it with tears in their eyes.
‘This is beautiful, Johanna!’ my mother said.
‘This must have taken you ages!’ Dadda marvelled. And it had. The roof was covered in fairies. Their wings had taken hours. I’d drawn veins on them. Wings, I reasoned, must have veins. There must be a vascular system.
Then my mother looked at it again.
‘But where’s your bedroom, Johanna?’ she asked. ‘Have you forgotten to draw it?’
‘Oh, no,’ I said, eating my breakfast mince pie. The pastry was very tough; my mother was not a gifted chef. I was glad I had topped it with a slice of Cheddar cheese, by way of precaution. ‘I’m not going to live there. I’m going to live in London.’
My mother cried. Krissi shrugged: ‘More room for me.’ My father lectured me. ‘It’s absolute certain death to live in a city!’ he said, at one point. ‘If the Russians don’t get you, the IRA will. Civilisation is a trap that will blow your knickers off!’
But I didn’t care if the Russians, or the IRA, did drop a bomb. They could drop a million billion, and I still wouldn’t want to live on the side of a mountain, with goats, and rain. Even if it was radioactive, and full of mutants, and lead to my certain death, London was still the place for me. London was where things happened, and I wanted – with utmost urgency – to happen.
And so at nineteen, here I am in London – and London, it turns out, is the place for me. I was right. I was right that this was the place to go.
I moved down here a year ago, to a flat in Camden, to pursue my career as a music journalist. I brought three bin bags full of clothes, a TV, a laptop, a dog, an ashtray, a lighter in the shape of a gun, and a top hat. That was the sum total of my possessions. I didn’t need anything else.
London provides everything else – even things you’d never dreamed of. For instance, I’m so near Regent’s Park Zoo that I can hear the lions at night, fucking. They roar like they are trying to let the whole city know how sexual they are. I know that feeling. I want to let this whole city know how sexual I am. I see them as another one of those unexpected London bonuses – en-suite sexy lions. This is something Wolverhampton would never give you. Although the downside is that the sexy lions drive the dog crazy. She barks until I order a Meat Feast pizza, and I give her the meatballs whilst I eat the crusts, and cheese. We are a good team. She is my pal.
If I imagine the dog is a horse – which is easy, as she’s very large – I live a life that could largely be described as ‘that of Pippi Longstocking, but with whisky, and rock music’. To live in a city at nineteen, alone but for a pet, is to engage in adult pursuits, but with the vision of a child.
I spent three days painting my flat electric blue, because, in Sound & Vision, that is what David Bowie did, and there is no better person to take interior decorating tips from than David Bowie.
I then tried to paint white clouds on the wall – to make it celestial – but it’s surprisingly hard to paint clouds with a big paintbrush and some white emulsion. The clouds look like empty speech bubbles; the walls look full of spaces where things should be said, but I don’t know what those things are yet. That’s part of being nineteen. You don’t yet know what your memorable speeches are. You haven’t said them yet.
When I have money, I have takeaway spaghetti bolognese for breakfast, every day, because that is the most treat-y meal, and children buy themselves meals that are treats. When I don’t have money, I live on baked potatoes – because they are treat-y, too.
I wake at noon, and stay out until 3 a.m., and then I have a bath, when I come home, because I can. It doesn’t wake anyone up. Every single one of those baths makes me happy. You leave home to have baths in the middle of the night. That is true independence.
My phone is regularly cut off, because I forget to pay the bills – they come so often! Who opens their post in the month it arrives? Only the dull – and, when the phone is cut off, people ring my local pub, the Good Mixer, and leave messages there for me. The landlord complains about this often.
‘I’m not your fucking secretary,’ he will say, handing over a pile of multi-coloured Post-it notes, when I come in, with the dog, for a pint.
‘I know, Keith. I know. Can I borrow your phone?’ I will reply. ‘I just need to get back to the most urgent ones. They want me to interview the Beastie Boys in Madrid!’
And Keith will hand over the phone, from behind the bar, with a sigh, because it is the responsible thing to do, when a lone teenager needs to make a call. It takes an innercity village to raise a child!
I keep all my dirty clothes on the floor – because who would waste their money on a washing basket, when you could spend it on roast chicken and cigarettes?
Once a month, when all the clothes have made it to the floor, I put them in my rucksack, and take them to the laundrette. One of Blur uses the same laundrette. It’s nice to use the same laundrette as a pop star. We nod at each other, silently, and then read the music press, whilst popping out every so often for a cigarette. I once watched him read a bad review of Blur, as he was doing a whites wash. I have never seen anyone transfer their underwear from a washer into a dryer so sadly. It’s hard to combine being a public icon with your day-to-day domestica. The disjuncture is jarring. Grace Kelly never had to unclog lint from tumble-dryer filter while Pauline Kael shouted abuse at her.
And what this makes me aware of is that London isn’t just a place you live: London is a game; a machine; a magnifying glass; an alchemist’s crucible. Britain is a table, tilted so all its loose change rolls towards London, and we are the loose change. I am the loose change. London is a fruit machine, and you are the coin you put in – with the prospect if it coming up all cherries, and bells.
You don’t live in London. You play London – to win. That’s why we’re all here. It is a city full of contestants, each chasing one of a million possible prizes: wealth, love, fame. Inspiration.
I have the pages of the A-Z stuck to my wall – so I can stare at the entire of London, trying to learn every mews, alley and byway. And when you take four paces back from the wall – so you’re pressed up against your chest of drawers, staring at it – what those network of streets most closely resembles is a computer circuit board. The people are the electricity jumping through it – where we meet, and collide, is where ideas are hatched, problems solved, things created. Where things explode. Me, and the sad man from Blur, and six million others – we’re trying to rewire things. We’re trying, in whatever, tiny way we can, to make new connections between things. That is the job of a capital city: to invent possible futures, and then offer them up to the rest of the world: ‘We could be like this? Or this? We could say these words, or wear these clothes – we could have people like this, if we wanted?’
We are Henceforth-mongers, trying to make our Henceforth the most enticing. Because the secret of everyone who comes to London – who comes to any big city – is that they came here because they did not feel normal, back at home. The only way they will ever feel normal is if they hijack popular culture with their weirdness, inject themselves into the circuitry, and – using the euphoric stimulants of music, and pictures, and words, and fashion – make the rest of the world suddenly wish to become as weird as them. To find a way to be a better rock star, or writer. To make the rest of the world want to paint their walls electric blue, too … because a beautiful song told them to. I want to make things happen.