Tube versus overground. Rat-runs versus the dictatorship of the Old Kent Road. Rooftops versus sky.
I had no idea when I first moved to London nineteen years ago the extent of the division formed by the curving, stately boundary of the river Thames. It’s a a division that goes far beyond mere geography. There are few things that mark out born-and-bred Londoners from those, like me, who’ve found our way here later in life, but I think the visceral tribalism of north versus south is one of them. We try and imitate it, but it’s just not the same.
I should come clean and tell you that I’m a traitor, a north-to-south turncoat. Until five years ago, I was an adopted north Londoner: Bloomsbury, Highgate (alright, Archway), Bayswater (alright Paddington). We bought our first home in Walthamstow: a two up, two down Victorian terrace that we named Sally as we swaddled her loft in pink-jacketed insulation. We loved that house, the first place either of us had ever owned, our longed-for, saved-for, little nest together.
But as time went on, de-cluttering became more frequent, more pressing, more difficult. It became clear that the feet of the man who was by then my husband were simply too large for Sally’s bijou dimensions: removing his shoes instantly turned the living room into an obstacle course.
We sold Sally to an architect and his wife and little boy. He talked about adding an extension at her back – I like to think she would have enjoyed that. As for us, we did it. We moved South Of The River.
There aren’t houses like the one we live in now in Walthamstow. We have cupboards, big ones, where we can hide away piles of stuff and put off de-cluttering to another day. There are lots of stairs for the cats to thunder up and down and set next-door’s dog to barking. We have room for our books. I have my own little spot for writing.
Okay, the garden’s smaller and the noise of the water feature doesn’t quite drown out the traffic. We’re surrounded by more hairdressers and nail salons than any community could ever possibly need, and a pimp was killed by one of his girls in a flat a couple of hundred metres from our front door. But then there’s also a farmer’s market, and a pub that serves really good food, and a picture framers, and a junk shop par excellence. We know the neighbours on either side and – thanks to hiring a skip (nothing like that as a device for social introductions) – a fair few of the others.
Apart from getting more square footage for your money, it’s all much the same as any number of north London enclaves – except for one thing. No original observations here, I’m afraid, because that one thing is public transport.
With no Tube in south London, I find myself strangely discombobulated. Aside from the obvious requirement of familiarity with train timetables to avoid long waits on windy platforms, I’ve discovered I used the Tube map to anchor myself in my hazy understanding of London’s geography. Whilst I know its neat, straight lines and the paradoxical, smooth-cornered rectangle of the circle line don’t correspond to the physical locations of the places they represent, it nevertheless provided the reassurance of connection: no matter where you are, it tells you, trace your fingers along my coloured lines and I’ll get you home.
In south London, by contrast, the tourist-free trains are indifferent to struggling newcomers. “You live here,” they seem to say, “Surely you know where you’re going?”
Maps do exist, of course; you happen across them from time to time when the heavens are aligned just right, and seize them hoping that at last the mysteries of the network will be revealed to you. Foolish mortals! The lines branch and curl and double back on one another, crossing but not connecting, available only on weekdays, the same but not quite – Catford Bridge, not Catford; Peckham Queens Road, not Peckham Rye. Where are the colours? Where the little route maps on the trains, helpfully pointing out where to change for another line? Where the friendly voice reminding you that this is the stop for such-and-such and to watch your step as you leave the train?
Inevitably, it was in south London that we gave up our status as a car-free household. But despite being the navigator on our trips, I’m still no wiser about the places that surround us. I understand how Lewisham relates to New Cross and to Blackheath. I come unstuck at Greenwich. Don’t even talk to me about Catford or Lee.
Needless to say, the characters in my novel spend their time trotting about north London; I’ve got enough research to do as it is. Perhaps one day I’ll write something set across the river. Then I’ll know I’m finally a south Londoner.