For a long time I tried to escape from where I was brought up. I grew up in a far-flung suburb of London, 15 minutes’ hard walk from the nearest tube station, which itself was so far from town that it was overground.
My parents did not especially feel like they belonged in the community, which they had arbitrarily moved to because they liked the house. Everyone else was Jewish, we were not. The other kids around us went to UCS, North London Collegiate, JFS, South Hampstead. We went to the local primary.
Later we – my sisters and I – overcompensated by going South and West, spending our time with people who lived in Chelsea, Vauxhall, Clapham, Battersea. Are these our people? How about these? Oh the hours I have spent on the tube!
It was as if we had decided that we had to get as far away from North London as possible. My eldest sister went to live in South Kensington, the other one in Fulham. I ended up in High Street Kensington.
But it all felt so wrong. No diss to you West Londoners but holy cow you have a lot of great big wide massive roads with lorries on them! And long, long, long avenues of houses like a posh Coronation Street. You look up the street one way… and then the other way… and it’s all identical, which to someone like me with no sense of direction is a real problem. And before the days of Ocado it made me wonder – where the hell do you go for a pint of milk?
I just did not belong.
Then I met my husband and as it happened he had a house in Kentish Town, North London, a mere 15 minutes’ drive from where I grew up. And I suddenly looked around where I had randomly chosen to live and thought afresh “I do not belong here.” I packed my bags and moved in with Giles without asking if he minded. I sold my flat.
At the time it was all about Notting Hill and Portobello and the market and all that crap. I, for the first time in my life, fought back in defence of North London. I praised the market and was laughed at. “Camden?” sneered friends. “With all the punks?” These were people not born in London, and they therefore had the luxury of just being able to adopt whichever area they thought best.
And I thought “Fuck you. Actually fuck you. This is my home, this is where I am from.” I never said that out loud, of course. But I never spoke to any of them again.
I was thinking about all this when we were recently at a Madness concert at Kenwood House (the most North London of all the North London places, except Brent Cross). I’ve always loved Madness, but I had no idea they were from Camden Town until quite recently. (I clearly just wasn’t paying attention to the entire song abut NW5, or the line when Suggs buys his car from a bloke in Primrose Hill.)
Then when the strip of shops at the top of my road changed from being Somali gang banger turf to a genteel hangout stuffed with bakeries and cheese-shops, Suggs himself appeared. SUGGS!
He’s very tall, he’s always carrying a rolled-up newspaper like he’s on his way to the bog. He breaks into song in restaurants. It’s very hard not to grab his lapels when I see him and scream I LOVE YOU.
And now my kids are huge Madness fans, Baggy Trousers being the sine qua non of all tunes to lift us up when we’re all feeling a bit down. I mean it could have been written for them: baggy trousers, dirty shirt, pulling hair and eating dirt. That’s… my kids, that is.
And don’t for one minute think that I don’t whisper into their ears that Madness are from here, they’re ours, because we’re North Londoners and North London is the greatest place in the world and don’t ever forget it.
I mean, just imagine what it must be like if you have been adopted from, I don’t know, Russia. Or Romania or China. And you suddenly live in America or England or France. Confusing as hell.
Or what if you’re not adopted but have to leave the country you love and where you belong in order to live, emergency-style, somewhere else. Along with all the other traumas and perils of re-locating quickly, long-term that feeling of not belonging is one of the saddest in the world.
Today, if you have a moment, please consider a donation to the Refugee Council, which supports those newly arrived in this country.
How about you? Where do you belong?