Selina Nwulu was Young Poet Laureate for London 2015-16. This is the 18th article in our regular series “My London”.
My London has changed countless times over. I have known London unemployed, slept on sofas and in box rooms too small for a wardrobe and desk (which kickstarted my bad habit of writing on my bed). I have known London working seven days a week, breakfast through dinner packed in sandwich boxes clumsily solidifying at the bottom of my backpack. I’ve been a student here, speaking in half formed essays and only feeling the August sun on my back through a library window. I’ve lived within the contradictions of young professional London; wearing ill fitted shirts and hovering around after meetings to take the left-over sandwiches for later. I’ve known London lonely, only this state still finds me frequently, no more so when taking a night bus from start to end on an empty phone battery.
In many ways my London has been a continuous turning page, prompted by the most unlikely of things; a new job that makes you relate to a different part of London and its people entirely, when a friend moves away and then all of a sudden there are certain places you don’t go to anymore or the first poetry open microphone night which opened my eyes to everything that came next. I have passed shops and landmarks knowing the last time I was there I was a different person entirely. And this change does not happen over the years you might expect, but months sometimes, weeks. I often wonder how many past lives I’ve shred in this city, how many I’m stepping over.
It’s funny to think I never expected to live in London. I grew up in Rotherham in South Yorkshire and while I always had ambitions to leave, my itchy feet were never for London, rather for somewhere I could never place exactly. My first memory of London is being dragged through Brixton mar-
ket as a child by my mother. I imagine that for her the market was a treasure trove of produce she could make home from and I remember her taking every yam and scotch bonnet and weighing them in her hands it as if they were gold. But for me, I only felt the dull obligation of following and the smell of the butchers clawing at my nostrils. Very occasionally as a teenager I would visit my older sisters who were living in various shared flats across the city. In those times I experienced London for its claustrophobia; no space for a garden, the heat of the tube on my chest, a strange man grabbing my sister’s arm. I decided I would never live in London; bus drivers didn’t wave at each other, food was more expensive yet no tastier and no one smiled. I was assured, in the hapless way the naive often are, that by the time I got to my sisters’ ages I’d have my shit together, would probably be living somewhere in the world with my own flat, balcony and if the mood struck, a motorbike.
Fast forward some ten years later and I found myself newly living in London and sleeping in the living room of my sister’s flat in Elephant and Castle. My bed is a mattress that I drag from behind the sofa once all my sister’s flatmates have gone to sleep. I had graduated and just come back from living in La Réunion, a French-speaking island in the Indian Ocean, where life moves at a lulled pace, food is plucked from trees moments before being chopped in the kitchen and space lush and ample. So needless to say this living room set up in Elephant and Castle is a slap in the face and, let’s face it, fairly ironic given my former loftier aspirations. It didn’t take too long, however, before I started to understand how fortunate I was to have somewhere rent free to set myself up in. And so I embarked on trying to be as invisible as possible so no one would notice that I’d definitely outstayed my welcome.
Choosing where to live as an adult can be a complicated decision. While I was lured to London by the promise of its opportunity, you also choose a place because you hope it will suit your temperament, certain aspects of your character. My experience of London in those early days was a city living at its cockiest; brash and complicated, often unforgiving. Everywhere I’d lived before London felt like it could be conquered and I could know its twists and quirks fairly quickly. But this was a city that was altogether un-
knowable, forever ready yet under construction. In retrospect, I also think this initial uncertainty with London was compounded by a phase of graduate grief; the realisation that neither you nor your degree are as special as you were once led to believe. And so it was a period of scrabbling around for mediocre jobs I didn’t really want and didn’t get, of temping and doing unpaid internships whilst drastically lowering expectations for my future life plans. I was lost - often physically (getting on and off the tube did no good for my general sense of direction) and existentially.
So I took to walking. It was my cheapest option and a way in which I could know where I was going and feel intentional, albeit in a very basic sense. I walked everywhere and as far as I could, wandering around willing the city to give me something to do. It is in this way that I began to discover a more sedate London, its parks and residential areas. I know quiet exists in London, far more than the brass face of it would have you believe, but quietness in London still feels like a delicious form of cheating somehow, like something secret I’ve stumbled on. Southwark still remains one of my favourite boroughs, for its brick buildings, hidden corners and council flats yet to be gentrified. I find Southwark to be a borough that is altogether beautiful, once you know where to look, that is. I still credit this time for how well I know London by foot. Having no claims over the city also helps; I am still able to glide its parameters without the diehard loyalties of the born and bred. The north - south divide means nothing to me unless we’re talking southerners and northerners (and then let’s discuss about how you pronounce the word ‘glass’).
While I had a shaky welcome to my life in London, being here has undoubtedly made me the writer I am today. It’s because of all those closed doors I encountered whilst trying to find a job that I turned back to my writing and eventually started sharing it. Meeting people making a life out of their creativity and using it to say something meaningful inspired me to do the same too. It might just well have saved me. Five years after being here, I became Young Poet Laureate for London, a yearlong position which has enabled me to think about London through poetry. My work often dwells on observation, identity and often the complexities of belonging and I think London has been an ideal place to interrogate these issues.
During my laureate year I’ve also had to hope; to play with London and imagine what it could be without limitations. As my laureate year finishes, I wonder whether I will still continue to hope for London as well as myself.
For now, London continues to be the place I call home. Sometimes I do not like London (Central Line, rush hour) but I trust it. I trust that it is a city, from its people to its landscapes, always in evolution. This change sometimes happens in brutal ways I do not like, but it reminds me that if a city like London must change, for better or worse, then so must we. There is nowhere better than London, for all its perplexities, unflinching nature and sheer backdrops to remind you that we are all just temporary flecks in this place, walking past former versions of ourselves in a city that has always been morphing and expanding from under our feet. In the end, all of this does and doesn’t matter and after all this time I’m beginning to realise: that’s the way I like it.