At the beginning of September it will be nine years since I left Birmingham to try my luck down in ‘The Big Smoke’.
Moving to London was always something that I knew I would do. I even considered moving here for college at the tender age of 16, though my parents would never have allowed it. But as ready as I felt I was then, when I finally packed my suitcase and got on that Chiltern Railway train a week after turning 18, I didn’t feel ready. I was eager, yes, but I was not ready.
People outside of the capital are friendlier, that is a given, and personal relationships have always been something that I’ve struggled with. At the age of 18 I had the kind of crippling social anxiety that Tumblr has now made “cool”, except at the time I didn’t have Tumblr, I just had the stomach-churning self-consciousness that made me cry myself to sleep at night and made all the other people on my course at Camberwell College of Art think I was really, really weird.
I remember when my then-boyfriend – don’t all of us London-bound-émigrés find ourselves immediately in some kind of romantic relationship, desperately seeking for some sense of home and familiarity in a city that is otherwise cold and indifferent? – invited me to a party that he was hosting for one of his close friends. I had met this friend before and she was friendly, but I couldn’t bring myself to enter the party. As in, I stood outside on the pavement for 45 minutes, trying to articulate to my then-boyfriend why I couldn’t physically walk into his house. He coaxed, cajoled, and graciously bit his tongue in frustration while attendees arrived and asked why he was outside on the pavement when the party was clearly livening up inside. Completely furious with myself, I left and went home alone. When I got inside I flopped fully-dressed onto my bed, and cried.
For a long time I had the mentality that all my “real” friends were in Birmingham, save one or two loving souls I found I could connect with down here. As my anxiety matured into something more manageable and my confidence and curiosity began to outweigh the unsubstantiated fears in my mind, I began to venture out to private views, networking events, and the occasional party or rave. But in the city where “your network is your net-worth” and friendships are built on reputation and the opportunities strategic connections may provide, I soon realised that generally, I have nothing to offer. I mean, I knew I was talented etcetera, etcetera, but I did not feel slick or savvy enough to turn that talent into social capital. And besides I was in the embarrassing position of trying to find actual friends, rather than business associates.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s not gotten any better now that our thin slivers of leisure time are subject to a hierarchy of social obligations. “I have like two friends!” I once would have joked, hiding the bitterness behind a casual snigger or cynical shrug. I know I don’t help myself by staying at home for days on end, but I can’t lie, I feel the sting of the rhetorical “why-don’t-people-like-me?” when I don’t get invites to birthday parties from people I felt close enough to to invite to my wedding. Just being honest. So here’s the part where I succinctly tell you the profound and encouraging lesson I’ve learned in this, and we both leave this blog post feeling assured and warm and fuzzy deep down inside. I don’t really have one though, apart from the fact that spending time being offended and self-conscious has made me withdraw within myself and overlook the great relationships I actually have in my life.
I “know” a lot of people, meaning I have plenty of associates – you know, people who went to my school or college, or people I’ve met through church youth group circles. These associates would even generously provide little boosts of validation when they would like things I posted on Facebook until I unfriended around 250 of them in a paranoid Facebook purge some time ago. Where before the thought would make me physically sick, when I do decide to venture out to social events, I don’t mind flying solo, often bumping into people I know at the function or at least finding one interesting person to make conversation and connect (on Twitter) with. I could trot out a glib cliché about quality over quantity, but really I think what I’m realising is that it is too easy to focus on the disillusionment that colours adult personal relationships. I do have friends, ones that I don’t see as often as I would like due to conflicting work schedules, overloaded weekends and the nature of sprawling London and its burdensome transport network. Oh, yeah all of that and then also because I’m introvert with a Wifi connection and Netflix subscription.
OK, so yeah, it is quality over quantity too. I’m trying to dig deep instead of scattering wide, and one of the key lessons I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that when the good times come you will never be short of people to drink Moët, pose for the photographer and tell everyone they were there at your big day. But what you really need are the ones that will brave the temperamental beast of the Southern Trains rail network to come and sit with you in your empty flat in the arse-end of nowhere while you feel your life break apart in your hands.
Yeah, man, I’ve got some of those type of friends. I’m grateful.