Sunday, April 3, 2011

The West End Girl

Lately, I seem to have my head stuck in the past. Not in a bad way, I hope. Not in the sad sense of reliving moments of glory, and yearning for the 'good old days'.

For a start, I don't think I've ever had proper moments of real glory. Not in the true sense of the word.

Instead, I've just been having little moments of nostalgia, and appreciating those memories, the small gems in my life so far, because I know there are plenty more to come.

In the last week, I've heard "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys, twice. I hadn't heard it for years, and it brought back quite a few memories. Hearing it twice, when out and about, was a sign for me to give in, and let some of these memories wash over me.

I remember being a little obsessed with the song as a 16-year-old, when I bought Discography: The Complete Singles Collection. It was back when CDs hadn't been around for long, and was the second or third CD I bought with my part-time earnings. 

I used to plug the head phones from my old walkman into my gleaming, boxy CD player at night, when the house was quiet. I would sit in an old armchair in my room, listening to this album. I would replay "West End Girls" at the end of the album, several times, before being content enough to climb into bed and sleep. This was before Discmans were around, and the idea of something like an iPod would have been unthinkable. I think I eventually copied it onto a tape, so I could listen to it in bed with my Walkman.

By the time my CD collection had expanded considerably, I was living in London.

Strangely - given I lived in London for nearly four years - I don't have a great deal of photos of London in my albums. I'm sure I have plenty of rejected pics tucked away in a shoe box, but those are in storage on the other side of the world right now. The photos which made it into my albums tend to be of people and friends - as we hung out at many a smoke-filled London pub, or holidays and foreign places. I guess London didn't feel foreign enough for me to get snap happy and document it - who knows?

I had a complicated relationship with that city.

I loved it in the beginning and have amazing memories of my first summer there, discovering the nooks and crevices, the history... but once summer came to an end, London slowly lost its shine for me.

Day to day life pulled me down. Earning a meagre wage, trying to make ends meet - and also save for more travel - in a city with a hefty cost of living. The cold. The grey skies. The darkness at 4pm. The grit in the air. The passive aggressive behaviour on the London Tube. The slightly too polite veneers of people. The way that nobody said what they really meant, directly - just in roundabout ways. For an Australian, there is nothing more frustrating.

I read a quote once, of London being one big toilet bowl. For a while, that's how it felt to me.

I functioned, but wasn't happy. I functioned, but didn't feel like I was really living. Although I never saw a doctor, or spoke to anyone about it, I'm pretty sure that I was depressed. Not to the extent that so many people I know have suffered it, but I think it was there, nonetheless. I was just very good at hiding it.

Time and distance eventually helped. Moving south to Brighton, I began to mostly see good in London when I caught the train up, for weekends with friends. I fell in love with the city again, but it was a long distance relationship. I knew I couldn't be there full time.

This is why hearing the Pet Shop Boys this week has brought back such vivid memories of that time in my life. Just hearing those two words: west end... it all comes rushing back. Colours, sounds, smells.

Throughout those years of living in London, no matter what kind of crappy day, week, month I'd been having, an afternoon or evening in the West End was a guaranteed good time.

It was only a twenty-minute Tube ride into the West End, and I loved the anticipation of what might unfold. I loved walking around, soaking up the atmosphere as it changed from one area to the next. Alone, with J, or with friends, there was always something to see or do. 

Window shopping in Covent Garden. Coffee in Soho. Bookshops in Bloomsbury. Jumping on the back of a red double decker bus on Oxford Street, just like the intro to Man About the House. Huge galleries near Trafalgar Square. Stalking squirrels in Hyde Park. Theatre in Covent Garden. Cocktails in Covent Garden. Clubbing and boat restaurants near Embankment. Bright lights and greasy take-away at 3am in Piccadilly Circus. 

Something for everyone.

It's been more than seven years since we left the UK, and the memories have shifted in a way I never imagined they would. When we first left, I believed that was it. Finished. Never going back. 

Over time, though, a rose-tinted glow has formed and I find myself entertaining the idea of going back. Not to live, but to visit. Catch up with friends. I'm curious to see what's new, what has changed - apart from me. I don't know if it'll ever happen, but the fact that I'm even considering it one day is a big turnaround.


  1. Mad, I first read this last night but didn't get to comment. Sorry.

    Love your take on the weather in London and the effect on mood. When I was growing up, I always wanted to do a stint in London. You've just run through all the fantasy images I had of that.

    I realise now of course it would have been like Melbourne on steroids weather-wise and if I get SAD here, I would have been even SADder there.

    I have often wondered whether my tendency toward depression is a product of my English ancestry. There is a certain miserable stoicism in the pommy temperament that rather gives the impression of life being a gigantic shit sandwich that one just has to chew through whether one likes it or not.

    Thought you might like this link because I think people have been pondering the connection between English temperament and weather for a while.

  2. Thanks for the link, Melbo.
    "In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost." ...Definitely more than a grain of truth there.

    Like in all big cities, though, there seems to be a different vibe in London to the rest of the UK. When we ventured out of London, we found people to be happier, friendlier and more relaxed.

    Oh, you would not like British weather - that's for sure! When we moved to Melbourne, friends kept telling me I'd hate the weather and be miserable, but I knew I'd be fine, that it wouldn't be as bad as in the UK. However, if I hadn't lived in the UK immediately beforehand, I think Melbourne weather would have done my head in! Not just the grey skies, but the changeability - four seasons in one day. Brighton (in the UK, not Melbourne) was the same.

  3. London has never held any appeal to me whatsoever. I think it's the weather mostly. And this from a Melbourne girl!

    I would like to see it some day but I know I could never live there. I don't like the idea of having to rely on public transport so much. I don't dig being shoved into a box filled with other people. Waaaaay too much humanity for me.

    But I think memories have a way of putting a glow on things that are removed from the actual reality of that time. Which is sort of nice.

    MJ, your writing is just blooming. I am so enjoying taking this journey with you. xx

  4. The dependence on public transport never bothered me. Well, as long as it wasn't a hot summer day with failed a/c in the carriage, and stuck in a tunnel for half an hour due to signal failure... which happened to me more times than I care to remember! I got a lot of books read, and listened to a lot of music. The Metro papers (like Melbourne's M/X) made the morning commutes go a little quicker too, even if all the stories came from Reuters and were badly written...

    Plus, have I mentioned I like observing people? As in, really like? The Tube was great for that.

    Thanks for the compliment - means a lot coming from you. xx