I have been in Newcastle almost a month now. While I have, on the whole, been having a lovely time – albeit one where I have lived out of a suitcase, so am constantly looking for belongings I don’t have with me – it hasn’t been a straightforward experience.
Being back, and knowing that I am properly back, not just visiting, has thrown up a lot of emotions. I am constantly being ambushed by memories. When flat-hunting the other week, I found myself wondering why the street I was standing in looked vaguely familiar, only to remember it was where I last lived in the city, in a flat I shared with a boyfriend, in a relationship that eventually went so dramatically wrong it gifted me a chapter in my first book. Walking out of Eldon Square a few days ago, I caught sight of a café and remembered with a pang it was one of my mum’s favourites – when I was visiting, we would often meet there for coffee and scones.
I realise I am very, very lucky in my work: I can do what I need to from anywhere with a laptop, a decent phone signal and a secure wifi connection. I am also single, without commitments of any sort: no partner, no kids, even ‘my’ cat was only ever on loan. This can be scary and invigorating at the same time – it makes the world wide open, but it means that any choice I make is slightly arbitrary. It also gives me no one else to blame.
Sure, there are reasons. The conversations I have had with estate agents have centred around not-untrue statements about wanting to reconnect with family, old friends, but even as I say that, I know it’s not the whole truth. (Apparently, when people ask, ‘why are you moving back?’, ‘because I felt like it’ isn’t an answer they expect or know how to respond to.) I do want to spend more time with my people here – but I’m also aware that, had that been my only goal, I could have managed that with a stronger commitment to visit more often.
I wanted to live somewhere cheaper. I wanted to get involved with an arts scene that felt grounded, and local, and more inclusive of the working class. All of these are true, yet none of these are reasons. If I am really, truly honest, I moved mainly because I was a bit bored, I fancied a change, and the pleasure I had in seeing my family at a recent birthday party reminded me how much I enjoyed their company, which felt like a timely steer. But I can’t help wondering if a good weekend in Glasgow would have had a similar effect, and I might even now be camping on a sofa a short walk from Sauchiehall Street, pondering my choices.
It’s this lack of a compelling reason that makes it difficult to counter the doubts when they do arise. If I’d moved for a job, or even a relationship, there would be an element of ‘I had no other choice’. But with nothing but a sort-of-whim to blame, it’s no one’s fault but mine if I have made a massive mistake.
This has felt acute this week. In part, it’s because all my London theatre friends have returned from Edinburgh, so my timeline is full of fun things people are doing in London, giving me a severe case of Fear of Missing Out. Why did I move away, when all the good stuff is happening where I was?
(I never get this about when they are actually in Edinburgh, funnily enough. In part, because the Fringe is too full-on for me, and I’m of an age I no longer enjoy shows set in basements where the roof leaks into my pint or the toilets had starring roles in Trainspotting. In part, because almost a decade living in Glasgow has given me an honorary-Scots suspicion of an influx of English people, many of whom seem to forget the city – indeed the country – exists the rest of the year, and view the Fringe simply as an importation of London shows and London folk, only on a more hectic, hedonistic schedule and packed together in easy walking distance. Not everyone, obviously, before you protest, but I have encountered enough of this attitude to make me wary.)
But while part of my problem with Brighton is it’s too easy to view it as London-on-Sea, it was undeniably handy for the capital. And it does feel like there is a bit of a moment in London theatre happening – a raft of exciting, inclusive new shows that are shaking up the staid certainties of the scene, welcoming new voices, creating a more vibrant, important theatrescape than we have had for years, if not decades. Did I leave just as things were getting interesting? Is everyone I know out enjoying – and creating – wonderful new art while I am sitting watching reruns of Grimm on someone else’s sofa?
I know some of this stems from my currently unsettled state: a month moving from spare room to hotel to spare room, my life in suitcases and storage. It’s hard to feel like I am putting down proper roots when I am always on the move, when I haven’t yet reconnected with half the people I know in the city, when I still feel like a stranger in my own hometown. I’m sure (I hope…) that once I have my own place, a base to stash my notebooks and make plans from, I’ll be able to enjoy more of what Newcastle has to offer, as well as spend time with the very folk I have been so keen to see.
But more than that, I have to remind myself: isn’t this what I wanted? As a writer, as a creative, as a person in the world: the challenge of another new beginning. Of forcing myself out of my comfortable, lovely, seaside-and-blue skies rut; of broadening my experiences from the Brighton/London bubble that was starting to feel like my whole life. Surely the whole point of leaving was knowing I could have stayed. But I chose not to. I chose this new adventure – with all its blips and its memories and its uncertainties and fears. That freedom is something I should celebrate. And if it comes with a side order of friends, family and much cheaper rent – well, that is all the better.
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