I guess there’s just no pleasing some people.
For weeks I griped and complained about the fact that my boxes hadn’t arrived from England yet. And now they’re here, I wish they weren’t.
I never thought I would be quoting lyrics from The Tennessee Waltz in this blog, but while I was unpacking, one particular line kept playing in my head, louder and more insistently than the Fugazi on the speakers. Going flagrantly against the optimistic conclusion I forced myself to draw here in a previous entry, that line was: “Now I know just how much I have lost.”
I always intended, apart from living a proper goodbye to London (which I think I did), to sit down and write something about it, but in the pressures surrounding my departure I never got time to. Call it solipsism or exhibitionism if you will, but somehow it feels inadequate just sitting here alone with my memories, I want to tell everybody about what this city, these people, this time, meant to me.
Typical Michellian Disclaimer: What follows may not mean a great deal to people who either don’t know me or don’t know London, but if you’ve ever been madly in love with any other city, that’s all you’ll need to understand. And of course I don’t think London or England are perfect, and of course there are serious problems with them which I was just lucky enough to never really encounter personally, and of course there are things I like and respect about Singapore. It’s just that on balance I swing West rather than East. My attempts at translating jumbled ecstatic memories into dry electronic scribblings may therefore give but a rippled reflection of reality, either through my inadequacies with prose or my tendency towards sentimentality, but here is my goodbye. I pray it wasn’t a farewell.
Goodbye to living in Bloomsbury, a stone’s throw from Charles Dickens’ house, Darwin’s research laboratory, the Bloomsbury Group’s stomping ground; companionably thumping the glass case that contains Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed corpse as I walked by every day researching my dissertation (subject: him); falling asleep at desks in the British Museum’s Reading Room where Karl Marx, Gandhi and Oscar Wilde once sat and studied.
Goodbye to beautiful buildings old and new; St Pancras station and the UCL Cruciform Building with their reds so resplendent in the sun, the gothic splendour of Le Meridien Hotel on Russell Square, Waterstone’s on Gower Street, the WWII-bombed church ruins off Great Tower Street in the heart of the City, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament as incredible the last time I saw them as the first; the views (either way, night or day) across the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, the Gherkin rising in the distance above Petticoat Lane Market, the British Museum’s breathtaking Great Court and Reading Room.
Goodbye to the East End – drinking in the same pub as Jack The Ripper’s victims, strolling the streets where their mutilated corpses were found, The Spread Eagle pub which I once inadvertently entered in search of a phone and was not well received in, prostitutes on one of Alec’s street corners, Islamic fundamentalists not far off the other, cutting-edge clubs 5 minutes down the road, the Brick Lane Sunday market of total junk, the Spitalfields Sunday market of lovely lovely things I could hardly ever afford, Dazed And Confused/punk/boho/Shoreditch twat types on their way to the bars rubbing shoulders (not literally) with old wizened Muslim men in white skull caps on their way to the mosque.
Goodbye to peaceful pockets of green amid the bustle; Gordon Square, Russell Square, Tavistock Square, the innumerable little courtyards and inner gardens impassive buildings initially conceal, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath; anyone who calls London a grey city just doesn’t know where to look.
Goodbye to cheap pints (yes, even a London pint is cheap compared to Singapore prices); being persuaded while drunk in a pub at illegal hours to play the piano and lead a bunch of strangers in song, realizing that due to drunkenness I knew all the beginnings and couldn’t remember anything else after, everyone sportingly singing along to my bumbling nonetheless; getting drunk with Mark and others at various UCL debating events; the Newman House bar with its ridiculously low prices and inevitable consequences; my two episodes of total memory loss which troubled me but amused Alec immensely.
Goodbye to radio personalities with personality.
Goodbye to being the only Chinese person in a club full of white people who know all the words to hip-hop tracks played by a Russian DJ, in an area alternately populated by Jews, Irish and now Bangladeshis, and still feeling like I belong more there than in a country in which I am part of a majority race.
Goodbye to a mostly gracious and polite culture (yes, even Londoners are polite compared to many Singaporeans).
Goodbye to a free press.
Goodbye to live music where I saw brilliance for pittance: Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Public Enemy, The Roots, Stephen Malkmus, Nick Cave, Flaming Lips, Built To Spill, Calexico, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, DJ Shadow, Fugazi, Tori Amos, El-P, Sigur Ros, and I haven’t even started on the mindblowing gigs by Bart Davenport, Calla and Magoo for which tickets were stamps on the back of my hand.
Goodbye to cutting-edge clubbing culture, where any club worth going to didn’t have a dress code, where I danced to sets by Orbital, the Scratch Perverts, DJ Hype, Fabio and Grooverider, Asian Dub Foundation, Anthony Pappa, Layo and Bushwacka, Sister Bliss, James Lavelle, Roots Manuva, DJ Vadim, Coldcut, probably a couple more I can’t remember, and pretty much took it for granted that world-class clubbing and hardcore clubbing companions (Russ and Gareth) were at my fingertips; going to Fabric when it had just opened, with Russ who I’d just met, talking ourselves hoarse and realizing this was really going to be something special; Orbital’s The Box filling the Somerset House courtyard as we danced completely oblivious to the driving rain.
Goodbye to living down the road from the West End, watching Rent, Miss Saigon, The Bomb-itty Of Errors, Art, Stomp, Bombay Dreams, Fame, Blue/Orange, King Lear, Richard II, Henry V, As You Like It, Uncle Vanya, Brand, The Coast Of Utopia, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead; queuing from 9 am in the freezing cold in the hope of tickets for Sam Mendes’ last production at the Donmar Warehouse; dragging Nav out with me at 11 am on a Saturday morning for the new Tom Stoppard at the National; hunching forward enthralled and a little turned on as Ralph Fiennes thundered religious fanaticism in Brand; Adrian Lester’s brilliant Henry V battle speeches; the moment at which two men in powder and lacy frocks kissing each other on the stage of the Globe Theatre stopped being any of these things and became a king and his queen, in love, and about to be separated.
Goodbye to mindbogglingly vast, beautiful, museums, not just in London but in Europe as well; Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Gallery, Royal Academy of Art, Saatchi Gallery, and British Museum; Vatican Museum, Uffizi Gallery, Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venice and Florence); the Prado, the Reina Sofia; the Picasso Museum, the Van Gogh Museum; the Louvre, and many more I can’t be bothered to type out; Antony Gormley’s ridiculously endearing Field For The British Isles at the British Museum; Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter at the Tate Modern, poetry out of destruction; Flandrin’s naked guy by the sea which is still my favourite picture in the Louvre; getting my head fucked first by Velasquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado, and then, after I thought I’d begun to understand it, by Picasso’s crazy reimaginings of the painting in the Picasso Museum; narrowly escaping Stendhal’s syndrome every time I stepped into anything in Italy.
While we’re on Europe, I might as well say goodbye to that too, since my unpacking included travel photographs from Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Spain, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Andorra; Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges; England, Scotland and Wales.
There is so much that wasn’t in the photos – the marble table Russ, Avril and I managed to break in a Madrid cafe; Luke’s waves to oncoming cars on a one-lane-road in the Scottish Highlands taking on a disturbing but hilarious Hitlerian quality; watching Turkish TV dumbfounded as September 11 unfolded before our eyes and Yan Yan rushing panicked to email all her friends doing internships on Wall Street; my French ski instructor bawling “Fuck ze slope Michelle, yes, yes, fuck it, very good!” as I endeavoured to follow his instructions on hip-torso coordination during parallel turns; five foot four Nick pulling an immense drunk Glaswegian off me in a Glasgow square as snow fell to the rhythmn of David Morales mixing in the New Year; the Germany trip with Russ which was just fantastic from beginning to end, partly due to Germany being fantastic, partly due to us finding our perfect Michelle-Russ travel groove; the 80-year-old power-station-engineer ex-Olympic-yachter on a train into Budapest who insisted on whipping out his mobile phone and booking accomodation for Alec and me right there so he could make sure it corresponded to the description in Let’s Go; Alec nursing me through high fever in Cornwall, Alec happily tucking into not one but two courses involving raw beef in Venice, Alec telling me three months into our relationship on a grey Valentine’s Day in Clifden (Ireland) that when the time came for me to return to Singapore, he would follow.
Goodbye to people I won’t forget.
Goodbye to Nav; soul sista in both dress sense and the fight against fellow females who may dance to Independent Woman but are anything but; leader of our proud So Squalid Crew; the only person in the world who eats slower than me; fellow slacker through undergrad and postgrad life. Who will keep me awake in lectures now?
Goodbye to John; perpetrator of whimsy and surreal conversations; man of random fascinating information, boffiny obsessions and almost unintentional academic success; always the one who kept in touch and remembered my birthday when I failed to do likewise in return; I was finally able to help you when you really needed me, once, and for that I am forever grateful.
Goodbye to Nick; capable and respected debating partner both on and off the debate floor; embracer of a moral landscape considerably different to my own but who nonetheless always respected my choices; cheeky, confident lad’s lad Nick to most people; also sweet, vulnerable, protective, caring Nick to me.
Goodbye to Russ; ever-enjoyable companion in travel, clubbing, marathon walks, and marathon conversations; unfailingly generous whenever I needed his help, unfailingly meticulous and reliable in rendering it; fellow evangelist in the crusade of honesty, fellow explorer in the search for uberselfawareness no matter how painful; quite simply the best friend I have ever had.
Goodbye to being in the same country as Alec, who I love for about a million different reasons, and thank God at least this goodbye is only temporary.
I sorted and stored my photographs, gig tickets, theatre tickets, museum booklets, travel souvenirs; four years’ worth of UCL IDs, debating notebooks and scoresheets from the debating tournaments I organized and participated in, mass sheets and hymns I spent so long practising in my year in charge of liturgical music, my London Swing Dance Society membership card, my transcript saying LLB (First Class Honours); the Slag Lager coaster I stole from Belgo’s, now coffee-stained and dog-eared; my acrobatic sheep mug, my happy orange plate; my memories of a life dominated by success, independence, and zero regrets.
I sorted and stored everything. I had a shower to get the dust off. I got into bed and cried myself to sleep.
Till we meet again.