In July 2016, I had a London-specific meltdown. A meltdown that became a pretty important personal transformation. I call it London-specific because there’s no other place on Earth where this kind of meltdown-transformation could have happened — or certainly, this would never have happened to me back home. You’ve been to London, right? It’s grey, it’s mean, it’s cold. It costs £600 to live in a murder-shag dungeon in Clapham. Truly, it has its problems. I arrived here with a dream to pursue a career as a writer and not a damn clue of how to get there; just the vague notion that to have stayed at home in Australia living my cosy life would have meant a certain midlife-crisis-life-implosion. I decided to try and avoid that outcome.
Sydney is where I hail from. If you haven’t been to Oz, you must go. Just so you know what’s out there. Sydney doesn’t have a cool nickname like “Old Blighty” or “Auld Reekie”. It’s just not that “Auld”. It doesn’t have such a high density of free art exhibitions or a super helpful public transport system. What it does have is housing that is expensive but reasonably suited to human living requirements, a stunning harbour and people who smile just because. It is warm for 10 months of the year, and when it eventually rains, it rains proper. None of this half-committed constant drizzle bullshit. So why leave such a chilled out haven of sunshine and human decency?
Fast forward for a second with me. I moved to London as a fairly snap decision — an opportunity presented that couldn’t be ignored — though I had in fact thought about it for years beforehand. It was early 2015. Two years later, I was still in London, working a job that consisted of such sustained toxic gender politics, that I was finding it hard to get up in the mornings. My partner had pissed off back to Australia after a mere 6 months in this grey city. I stayed on, worked the job, lived in a shoebox I could barely afford, and didn’t save a cent. I made no strides towards my desire to write. I got up, commuted on the Northern line, sat on the 31st floor of Euston tower and wondered what the fuck my life had become. I left my family, my home, my comfort — for what?
That meltdown I mentioned? Yeah, it hit pretty hard. July 2016 represented my 18 month mark — my 18 month anniversary of arrival in London. At that point, it seemed like it could be a natural time to leave. Just ditch the entire failed experiment, throw it all in, go back home to the sun and the happy faces and my family. When you’re depressed, the distance between you and the people you love feels far greater than even the 24-hour flight would suggest. Stranded on the London island, I had to make a pretty huge choice. My options:
- Pack it in. Sell/toss/donate everything. Go home with the last money in my account. Start again.
- Say “fuck it”. Toss in everything that wasn’t working (i.e. everything — job, apartment, relationship, etc). Start again.
I chose the second option. Either way, a pretty fundamental reset had to be made, so I figured I would give London one final push. I handed in my notice to my ridiculous corporate overlords, I handed in notice on my ridiculously over-expensive lease, I broke up with my then boyfriend. I packaged up everything I didn’t have immediate use for. It was sold, donated or shipped back to Australia. I sent myself savings from Oz to fund exactly 6 months of living in London. I moved into an even smaller shoebox, this time without a bathroom (it had to be shared with 6 other flats), without proper running hot water, and without any real privacy (my loud neighbours provided free entertainment). I holed up in that flat and started taking on freelance writing work.
For the first few weeks, the sense of relief at not having to show up to an office I despised was so great that I was ecstatic most of the time. I felt free for the first time in my life — I wasn’t getting a tonne of work, but I was getting a little bit, a trickle starting to flow. I used the few examples of my writing in the past to scrape together a portfolio. I kept on applying for jobs that I thought likely not to cause a mental breakdown. My CV went out 5–6 times a day, every day. I scrimped hard.
I’m not going to lie to you: being a full time freelance writer is a fucking nightmare. There were weeks when I was plunged back down in my depression hole so fast, I had whiplash — like the time an Upwork troll reported my account and I was suspended from working on the site until the morons figured out I’d done nothing wrong. Like the time I received a notice of being sued by my former employer who felt I owed them £1600 of my hard earned money for leaving my contract when I did, while my electricity cut out for 4-hours because my landlord loved that slum-lord vibe. Like the time I thought maybe it would just be easier to hold up commuters by taking myself onto the tracks. The thought crossed my mind on several occasions.
My CV bashing continued though, I took whatever work I could get as a writer, and somehow, I got a job. Actually, I got two jobs. This was in December 2016. A mere month shy of my London rage quit deadline. Holy shit.
That was a close one.
I took the job offered to me by Spotlight. I had been starting to wonder if I’d been an imposter this whole time. But no. I’d actually done it. I was a legit full time writer. Me!
It took pretty much two solid years for this to happen. Two years of crazy depression cycles, being skint as all hell, and giving up things I had previously thought unthinkable to live without. I know this was as much about luck and timing as it was my hard work — not to detract from my efforts but let’s be real: every man and his dog in London fancies himself a “creative”. The competition is staggering. I made sure every effort that could be made, was made — I didn’t do a thing less than everything. I put it all on the line for this goddamn city and somehow, eventually, it had shown me a kindness. It had delivered me up exactly the break I needed.
Nowadays, I am writing and editing every day. My job allows me to speak to people who have unparalleled passion for the arts. I see about a play a week, I go to all the galleries, I am constantly showing up for philosophy chats in weird bookshops, for aerial circus classes, for life drawing sessions, and for spontaneous short film shoots. I make things, I experience things, I engage. I’ve been fortunate enough to finally make a home for myself that isn’t a mental-murder-slum-dungeon. I have books on my shelf, wine in the fridge and plants on my window sill. I am, for the most part, content.
London pushed me to be a version of myself that I never thought was possible. This version of me that is emotionally charged, creatively confident and courageous as all hell. Extortionate rent? Whatever. Rude shop assistants? That’s fine. £10 in the bank? Plenty. Crazy commuter tube rides? Bring it. Bullshit bureaucracy? Fuck. With. Me.
I know London is hard work, expensive and unfriendly. I knew that going into it. Sure, I didn’t appreciate just how low my lows might get. But at the end of the day, this city has offered me up opportunities I would never have had back home. It offered me a chance to be something I thought I might never really be. And I’m not done with it, just yet.
London is a city where creativity is really valued. Where culture permeates everything. Where you can nip over to Paris if it all gets too much, where you might end up in a party with celebs or you might just end up at home eating instant noodles. Anything is possible. Nothing is off the table.
What are you willing to put up with to achieve the life you want? That’s the question, really, and it’s not an easy one to answer. It isn’t a matter of saccharine film stories. This is not the “American Dream” scenario, where the moral of cheesy underdog tales holds true — hard work won’t necessarily get you there. But pure grit might. Grit and luck and stubbornness. How many times are you willing to throw your hat into ring? There’s no correct answer, but London will teach you fast about what you really value.
I value art, expression and a sense of community. For the first time in my life, I have my tribe. I am missing some things that are important, but values shift and change with age and context. I have no intention of being a crooked little 80 year old trying to fight for my space on the morning tube — it just isn’t going to happen. Someday, I will leave this hub of sensory overload. But for now, being what and who I am, I am exactly where I need to be. It’s not as serenely pretty as Paris, or as wide-eyed brilliant as New York. It isn’t as niche and unusual as Tokyo. But this is a city that is steadfast in its pursuit of diversity, inclusivity, creativity and thoughtfulness. People might seem stony, but they are nonjudgmental, they mostly have good intentions in their hearts and once you penetrate the acquaintance substrate, you find friends for life in this city. It’s a place I am satisfied to have carved my space in, and which has in turn moulded me for the better.
This is the best city on Earth — if you can take it.
This was a response to recent Vice article “An Australian Explains Why London is the Worst City on Earth”.