Selina Nwulu

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My Lon­don

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.

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