Leaving London – No man’s land #3

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

In the wider world, Royston is a place for arrivals, departures and intervening connections. House prices reflect good transport links via international airports (two within 45 minutes), motorways (two within 15 minutes by car on a good day) and 10 minutes by train to Stevenage for rail links to the north and Scotland, and south to London.

royston-to-london-milestoneIronically, Royston is more connected to the rest of the world than the rest of Hertfordshire, and, in fact, the rest of North Hertfordshire. I know at least two 20-somethings in Letchworth who have never travelled the 12 miles to Royston (11 minutes by train). I think Royston and District (that’s the SG8 postcode) should be declared an independent republic. Most or the one million inhabitants of Hertfordshire have never been to Royston. Even work colleagues in the other corner of the county used to ask me whether I actually returned to Royston at the end of each day; for them it was another world (‘there be dragons…’ etc)

Unlike in the trading days of old, many more people have driven past Royston without stopping – it’s on the A10, the old London to Cambridge route before the M11 was built.  Even for us, our first visit from our home in North London to Royston was for house-hunting. I had sworn I’d never commute into London but my wife convinced me that it needn’t be difficult as I was working near Kings Cross station at the time and her family lived in Norfolk – making Royston a much more accessible place to live.

I could say that we finally decided to leave Hackney when we heard someone being shot dead on their doorstep after a late-night party bust-up. But that wouldn’t be true; we heard the fatal shooting but we’d already decided to move out.

In fact the final push for me was returning to London after a weekend in Norfolk. Our two-year-old daughter was fast asleep in the back of the car, my stress levels were rising with every mile we travelled, then crawled, towards the city. I could almost smell the air as we arrived home. Like many before us, we moved out of London for the fresher air, reduced congestion, and affordable property when our toddler needed her own bedroom.

clissold-park-cafe-2I have never regretted the move although I do miss the cakes in the Clissold Park cafe (since tarted up and, no doubt, now selling… tarts).

During 16 years studying, living and working in London, I never made the most of the opportunities on my doorstep. In our first week at university, our tutor warned us we’d put off discovering London until it was too late.         She was right.

It wasn’t even about money; I just kept putting off the sightseeing to a later date that never arrived. I got to know only very small parts of the city (Willesden Green, Finchley, Islington, and then Stoke Newington) feeling most connected in the final two years there when our daughter was born and we got to know other new parents.

While working in London, my professional and personal lives were kept quite separate; a practice that has helped me, apart from some notable lapses, to sustain a sort of work/life balance throughout my career. I say ‘sort of’ because my work has been less a career path more a lifelong cause – something I’d probably do whether or not I was paid. This was illustrated by my young daughter, at a time when I often worked from home. She asked me one Saturday morning “Are you working today Dad?“No” I said, trying to be helpful, “I’m doing what I did yesterday, but today I’m not getting paid to do it”. I think that confused rather than clarified the situation for her.

In London I lived at various addresses north of the river. For a couple of years my MP was Margaret Thatcher and her signed response to my complaint about the state of the roads for cyclists (I was one then) was a treasured possession for at least a week. I spent two years in Islington living with a journalist who, I later learned, was charging me 90% of the ‘shared’ rent to pay for her drug habit. I also learned she’d chosen me as a flatmate because she’d heard I’d travelled in South America and (wrongly) assumed I’d returned with, at the very least, a handful of coca leaves.

The move to Hackney was to move in with a Bart’s nurse who was to become my wife. We lived in a terraced road off Stoke Newington High Street for several years. It was wonderfully quiet but this didn’t stop thieves stealing the bonnet from a neighbour’s car across the street on a hot summer night when everyone had their windows open – that takes skill. All we had stolen were headlight surrounds, a car radio, and a Vauxhall bonnet badge from my wife’s Chevette (much sought after for spares…)

prince-of-wales-n16The pub around the corner was good for the odd drink after a busy week; a semi-regular two pints on Friday evenings almost made it our local. The real regulars would prop up the bar night after night. I assumed they were loneIy old men (one looked just like Lord Snooty from The Dandy kid’s comic) seeking solace in a pint at the Prince of Wales, or the POW as it was known. Then one evening, after a couple of years, I heard one of the regulars saying he was off home because his missus would have his tea on the table. Maybe I was right after all – lonely old men in loveless long-term marriages, more at home in the pub than at home. (The POW has since been tarted up and re-named ‘The Prince’ – Lord Snooty must be spinning in his grave.)

Compared to Hackney, Royston was a backwater. We’d landed in what seemed like a quaint and quiet corner of little Britain, not unlike TV’s Royston Vasey made famous by The League of Gentlemen. The crime scene was more The Bill* than The Sweeney – the town’s mayor was being exposed on national TV for wrongdoing associated with his estate agent business, and the Royston Crow newspaper’s crime reports were about parked cars being ‘keyed’ – annoying, but hardly life-threatening. Then there were the quirky couples – two local councillors Deborah Duck and Ted Drake and, sometime after we’d settled in, two married couples swapped partners. This was life in the slow lane – in the unhurried-and-interesting, not traffic-jam-crawling – sense. Life in Royston was to serve us well.

*Some TV trivia – an actor from The Bill bought our house in Hackney, and Sun Hill police station in the TV series was named after Sun Hill in Royston where creator Geoff Mcqueen lived.

To be continued….

For other blogs in the ‘No man’s land’ series click here https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

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