Can you go home again?, part 3: Highbury

February 3, 2014 § 3 Comments

Highbury Hill, London N5

Highbury Hill, London N5

(The original post is here.)

Of the three places I lived as a student, my tenure in Highbury was by far the longest – nearly four years. I suppose it’s inevitable, then, that my feelings about it are the most mixed.

I’ve already written here about my dislike of Highbury and Islington, so I won’t belabour the point now, but suffice it to say I went in with a sunnier attitude, despite the fact that my ending up there was in large part a matter of chance.

I ended up in Highbury because I wanted to move back to Stoke Newington. If that sounds odd, let me explain: I moved out of Stoke Newington at the start of the second year of my PhD and spent three lonely, cold but extremely productive months of research in Paris. Before I left, a friend and I had talked about getting a place together when I returned. I was very keen that that place should be in Stoke Newington. She was… less keen. (The main bone of contention was the lack of Tube. I could sing the praises of the bus and train until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t do a lot of good.) Finally, less than two weeks before I was due to return to London, I had an email from her: ‘Sorry, I’ve decided to move in with my boyfriend. Best of luck with the flat-hunting.’ I felt shocked (particularly as said boyfriend had only been in the picture a couple of months), upset and not a little betrayed, but there was nothing for it but to start searching on my own.

If I couldn’t share a flat with a friend, I decided the next-best thing would to put the drama and chaos of living in an overcrowded student house behind me. (My return to London meant, among other things, that I would have to start writing my thesis, and I couldn’t imagine doing so in the not-always-congenial company of seven other people.) So I started combing through online ads for flatshares in north London. There was nothing in my price range available in Stoke Newington, so I cast my net a little further west.

Arsenal Station

I somehow booked myself four different viewings in the space of an afternoon. The last was for a room in a three-bedroom maisonette just up the street from Arsenal station. The other two tenants were P, an Irishman who was doing IT consulting for the BBC, and S, a Londoner and science journalist. They were charming, welcoming and desperate to find a new flatmate; I was thrilled to find a good-sized room in a nice area with what I thought were a couple of sane, mature, interesting flatmates. A week later I was sweating and cursing under my breath in the middle of the room as I attempted to conjure my first ever flat-packs from Ikea into something resembling a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.

The fact that the room had come unfurnished was definitely one of the pluses of that flat – it meant that this was the first time since I left university that I had furniture to call my own, and even if it was just bottom-of-the-range Ikea stuff it was amazing how much more settled it made me feel. The location was another plus. I was literally a thirty-second walk (I timed it) to Arsenal station, and an only slightly longer walk to Highbury Fields. (Islington has the smallest amount of green space of any London borough, and the proximity to one of the borough’s only decent-sized parks had a lot to do with me being able to maintain my sanity during the most stressful periods of writing up.)

Several months in, though, things began to pall. I began to feel increasingly disenchanted with my flatmates. P, whom I’d initially thought was interesting and a great conversationalist, turned out merely to love the sound of his own voice. He could also be alarmingly moody and was, for reasons that eluded me, always rude to my friends whenever I invited them round (to the point that I stopped having anyone over, apart from my boyfriend whom P never spoke a word to but always stared at as if he had three heads). S, although a decent person and someone with whom I might easily have been friends had I met him in other circumstances, turned out to be not terribly well house-trained. His portion of the fridge and pantry (which was well more than a third of it) looked like a science experiment gone awry (ironic considering his profession). Neither of the two was particularly keen on doing their share of the cleaning. I came, gradually and unhappily, to realise that I was, in essence, living with two overgrown students.

The house itself had its share of problems. One of them was the location. Remember I said it was a thirty-second walk from Arsenal station? Well, that also meant it was across the street from one of the entrances to the old Arsenal Stadium. Match days were a nightmare – if I wanted to go anywhere, I’d have to leave at least two hours before and not come back until two hours after it had finished. The crowds and the noise were something to behold. My bedroom faced onto the street and I still shudder at the memory of the hours I spent at my desk, trying to grind out part of a chapter in the face of the not-at-all-distant roar of the home supporters. From feeling completely neutral about the sport, I turned, over the course of those four years, into a passionate hater of football in general and the Gunners in particular.

The other problem was the landlord – or the lack thereof. For the first two years I actually thought we didn’t have one, as whenever we had a problem in the flat we’d have to turn to the (fairly useless) management company. And things did go wrong. The boiler broke once (in mid-winter); it took two weeks to get it fixed. We had mice in the kitchen; it took even longer (and much begging and pleading) to get pest control in. But the worst was a tenacious crop of ivy that grew over the kitchen window, blocking out all the light and threatening to burst through into the flat. We would have taken matters into our own hands except that the vines were so thick that it was impossible to open the window, and so we were forced to tolerate a kitchen plunged into submarine gloom by a plant scarcely less frightening than Audrey II. (Granted, I never actually heard it whispering ‘feed me, Seymour’, but I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if it had.) The only time the actual landlord bothered to make his existence known was when, a month before I moved out, he wrote to us to tell us that he was raising the rent. As if I hadn’t already been glad to be leaving…

Unlike my two previous houses, I actually have been back to the Highbury one before – nine months after I moved out, I was back in London to speak at a conference and I went there to collect my post. I hadn’t moved out in happy circumstances – I’d stayed on in London for a year after finishing my PhD and, having spectacularly failed to find a museum job, was reduced to a miserable string of temping jobs before I admitted defeat and moved back to the States – and although I was in a much better place when I returned (I’d been offered a job at a museum in Los Angeles and was to move there a few months later) I naturally felt anxious about coming back and seeing the flatmates I’d had a fairly uneasy relationship with.

It turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. P wasn’t home, but S was and in his usual good spirits. I hardly recognised the place – he had a new girlfriend and she’d transformed it. The kitchen was bright and cheerful and nicely decorated, the evil vine vanquished. They hadn’t found another person to take my room after I’d left, but had instead converted my former room into a lounge. Although I’m sure that vastly improved the quality of life in the flat, I couldn’t help but feel a bit weird about that, as if my departure had caused them to decide they had actually never needed a third flatmate at all.

So I chatted for a few minutes over a cup of tea, picked up my post and walked out the door for what I now knew was the last time, feeling nothing but relief.

*

My decision to go to Highbury on a Saturday is dictated by – what else? – an Arsenal match on the Sunday. They’re playing Crystal Palace, an irony I find delicious (my despised former neighbourhood squaring off against my much-loved current one), and although a contest doesn’t get more David-and-Goliath than that, and despite my above-mentioned hatred of football, I spare a thought for the Eagles as I head for the bus from Highbury & Islington station.

It’s a cold, sunny day, with that thin, bright, watery quality to it that I noticed when I walked through Harringay two weeks ago, and the journey up Highbury Park is much the same as I remember it – the handsome, solid-looking redbrick terraces bordering Highbury Fields, the neat row of shops around Highbury Barn, the gradual slide into slight grittiness as the bus descends the hill. As in Stoke Newington, I misremember my old stop and get off one too late, forcing me to backtrack to Gillespie Road. The off-license at the corner of Blackstock and Gillespie Roads is still there; I peek in just long enough to see whether the terminally grumpy Turkish Cypriot who used to hold court at the till is still there. (He is, and is still scowling.)

Gillespie Road

Turning into Gillespie Road is slightly disconcerting. I remember it grey and down-at-heel, the very obvious borderline between snooty Highbury and grubby Finsbury Park, and in my memory it is, for some reason, always raining as I walk along it. In reality it’s discernibly scrubbed and spruced up – the effect of the conversion of the old stadium into expensive new flats, no doubt. Even so, there are still enough reminders that I’m in Arsenal Land – the scarf and sausage stalls, shuttered today, due to be mobbed tomorrow.

Highbury Hill

Gillespie Road is longer than I remembered it, but the walk from the Tube station to my old house still takes the same length of time – thirty seconds. And here it looks as if time has stood still. I would be willing to bet that it’s still got the same landlord – it is very noticeably in the worst condition of any house in the street. Two miniature trees are sprouting from the gutters on the roof; the front garden is choked with weeds. As for the hedges, it looks as if someone has recently gone at them with an axe rather than secateurs. It’s probably a good thing I can’t see round to the back – I imagine the Ivy of Doom has probably re-conquered the kitchen window.

What I can see from the street is my old window. This is the only one of my three old houses where this is the case (my rooms in Harringay and Stoke Newington both faced onto the back garden), and gazing up at this innocuous-looking window makes me shiver with more than cold. How strange to think that on the other side of the glass is the room that contained four years’ worth of nerves, guilt and self-doubt as I first wrestled my thesis into existence, then struggled fruitlessly to find a job.

There are a number of pedestrians passing the house so I don’t linger – not wanting to look suspicious staring at it – but as I turn away and head up Highbury Hill I don’t feel a sense of peace, as I did in Harringay, or nostalgia, as I did in Stoke Newington. I feel nothing but relief, even stronger and purer than on my previous ‘last’ visit. I no longer belong here, and that is more than all right with me.

There’s a new café tucked among the Highbury Barn shops called Highness, and despite the cringeworthy name I can’t help wishing, as I sit at an old Singer sewing table with a cup of tea and a piece of orange cake, that it had existed when I was a student – it would have been an infinitely more pleasant (and warmer) place to sit and write than my old room. Then again, given the price of the cake, maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t…

Highbury FieldsHighbury Fields is as green and pleasant as I remember, apart from the laminated signs tied to the backs of all the benches that border the path warning us that the ground is waterlogged and would we kindly keep off the grass so that it can recover. It’s just as well that it’s too cold to make defying the signs a tempting prospect. I hurry past the green and the terrace of houses, past Walter Sickert’s old house at the end of the row, in the slanting late-afternoon light.

*

Can you go home again? Yes and no. Sometimes it’s good to make the attempt, if only to discover that you don’t actually need or want to go home again after all.

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