This is the sixth of our series in which writers say what London has meant to them. Holly Luhning is a Canadian poet and novelist. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. Prior to this she was a Leverhulme Visiting Research Fellow at University College Chichester.
Canadian writer Aritha van Herk says ‘home is a movement.’ In her book, No Fixed Address, she investigates the idea of identity and geography in the Canadian Prairies. When I first read Van Herk’s definition of ‘home’, I felt relief. There was a name for, and an understanding of the necessity (and privilege) of my immigrant past, and future.
I did not have the opportunity to meet my maternal-maternal set of great grandparents before they passed away, but I had the benefit of hearing my mother’s stories about them. In his twenties, my great-grandfather Isaac left Manchester to work on the railway in Canada. His brother Harry went with him and opened a sweet shop in British Columbia. Harry and his wife weren’t up to managing a farm, but Isaac took land (as provided by the rail company) near Kyle, Saskatchewan. During his thirties, Isaac’s mother became ill, and he travelled back to England. He fell in love with the woman who was nursing his mother. At age thirty-six, my great-grandparents married and went back to Canada. When they had children (my grandmother, Hilda, and my Great-Auntie Alice) they journeyed back to England once more. But after a year, they returned to Canada, and resumed their careers as farmers.
My grandma Hilda married a Norwegian – Norman – they lived on a quarter section of land in southern Saskatchewan. When WWII started, my grandfather joined the army. He landed at Juno Beach on D-Day. He stayed in England before and after, often with my grandmother’s extended family. After the war, he returned to Canada and was reunited with my grandmother and his daughter, my Auntie Peggy, then a two-year old girl.
My grandparents went on to have more children: six daughters. My mother was a middle child. I was interested in my English and Norwegian heritage (on my paternal side I had German and Hungarian/Bulgarian backgrounds as well), but I started to develop a particular interest in England, and indeed, in London.
One of my formative impressions of London is: Andrew and Fergie’s wedding. On TV, I saw the Duke and Duchess waving and kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. It looked like being a Duchess was a pretty good gig, so I decided that I, too, would like to be a Duchess. As I was six years old, and lived on a grain farm in rural Saskatchewan, Canada, this plan was highly unlikely to work out. Still, I would like to think that if my six year-old self knew that I would eventually end up living in the city – even though not as a Duchess – she would have been quite pleased.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence I maintained a strong desire to travel. When my family asked me about my career plans, I informed them I planned to waitress around the world, and after I had ‘life experiences’ I would write a book. My parents advised me this might not be the best life plan. But, when I was seventeen I won a place in an international Canadian concert/jazz band, and my parents had agreed I could join the European tour. It wasn’t quite waitressing, but London was our last stop. My friend Jill and I got lost near the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park; we were seventeen, among the youngest of the band members, and were refused entry to a bar that most of the rest of the band went to that night. She and I wandered through gorgeous flowers. (Turned out, we arrived home before the rest of the band!)
I didn’t return to the city until about eight years later. It was the summer before I started my PhD, and I was en route to Eastern Europe, where I planned to backpack and do some research for a series of poems I thought I was writing; this project later turned out to be my first novel. I stayed in a hostel in Shepherd’s Bush. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of my creative relationship with London. As the poetry project evolved into the novel, it was clear that a large part of the narrative needed to be set in London. It was the only place I knew where my diverse set of characters might pass through and cross paths; plus the overall chaos, glamour, and vague threat of the city supported the overall aims of the story.
I embarked on a PhD in eighteenth-century literature whilst continuing to work on the novel. My area of study was London and the explosion of print culture in the eighteenth century. I ended up travelling to London a lot to research my dissertation; also, I used many of these research trips to inform the writing of my first novel. London became a major setting in my novel. The pace and the uncertainty of the city were paramount to the story. My family wondered why I went to London so often: one of my aunts thought I was involved in a secret romance – I guess in a way I was, but with a city, not a person.
I had the chance to do a second post-doc, but this time in England. When I applied, it was a longshot, but I got it. There was something odd about the few months before I left Toronto for England. Part of me was excited, part of me was reluctant. I had every single intention of returning to Toronto at the end of the year, but several people made comments along the line of:
‘See you when you get back … IF you decide to come back.’
‘Oh, I’ll be back!’ I said.
These comments struck me as odd, because every time I’d left to go someplace before, even as long as a year, no one to my recollection said anything to this effect. Or maybe they did, and I just didn’t register it, but this time, it struck some sort of chord. I was a bit indignant: ‘Of course, I’m coming back!’
Long story short, I didn’t come back. I took a job in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. I moved to south London. This job meant I was moving to London for the foreseeable future. I missed Toronto. But there also seemed a certain sense of inevitability about moving to London, too. I had felt this before my friends’ comments; not perhaps as far back as when I was on the Duchess career path, but still – I felt London was properly in my future. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking that I then made into reality, but it is strange how our unconsciousness drives us to make decisions that lead to the actualization of our hunches and predictions for our futures.
Living in London was exciting. And troublesome. The commute was difficult. I came home to find my front door smashed in one day. I got to know the neighbourhood and moved to a ‘better’ part of it. I learned that trains were late and always crowded. That no one is supposed to look at each other let alone speak on public transit. Everything closes at 11pm. Overt displays of emotion make people uncomfortable, just as direct communication is discouraged.
But, also: I could go to my favourite places in the city any time I liked. There were walks available throughout the year. I met lots of people. For a few (brief) months, I loved my job so much I thought I would probably do it for free. In short, I was in the haze of infatuation with my new city.
As much as I loved London, I slowly had to admit to myself that there were a lot of things I really didn’t like about this place. I had a crisis of confidence regarding my ability to become a Londoner. I thought that maybe everything was better back in Canada and I entertained quite seriously the possibility of handing in my resignation and moving back to Toronto and picking up the ‘waitressing around the world’ career path once more.
This of course was very myopic thinking. So, I didn’t like some things about the city. So, there was always something about every place I’ve lived that I didn’t like. There’s always something not to like, period. I’m sure if I were in Toronto I wouldn’t have liked that they had snow on the ground until April this year. I had to fall out of my infatuation with London, to get over the novelty of it, to start actually, to live in it.
If I hadn’t moved to London, I wouldn’t have travelled half as much as I have in the past two years. I’m actually in Crete as I write this, because I had a week leave and decided two days before I left I wanted to go. As much as trains are late and you see your fellow humans very up close and personally on the tube during rush hour, London’s perpetual movement is freeing. You can go anywhere. Anyone can (and does, often surprisingly) come to you. It is a place that meanders and allows for meandering; you don’t have to choose between being still and having an adventure. In the history and shape of its streets, there are no straight lines, no one true narrative. There is a layering, a network of stories; there is the chance you will take the long way or get lost, or end up exactly where you need to be, and sometimes all of these things are the same.
American philosopher Jeffner Allen talks about a theory of sinuosity. The idea that a straight line, if broken, has difficulty recovering. The ebb and flow of a seeded and swathed field will push and pull back. A curved line is unbreakable; the comings and goings of our relatives, their choices, their past cities, supports us. London pulses, and is never predictable.