A day trip to London

Yesterday I had a client meeting in London, so made a flying visit, though I managed to squeeze in drinks at The German Gymnasium with a friend before my train back. But oh, much as I am not sorry to have moved, London can be mighty pretty…

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A Sort of Homecoming

I never really thought I’d come home. It wasn’t in the long-term plan – I have no long-term plans – or part of some well-thought out strategy. Like pretty much every other major decision I have ever made, it was the same combination of part-whim, part over-reaction to circumstances that has shaped so much of my life.

Bit bored of Newcastle? There’s that bloke in Sheffield who’s happy to have you move in. Glasgow tenement too cold? Move to London! London rent too high? Give Brighton a try! Windows in the Brighton flat buggered? Back to Newcastle it is, then! It’s not what you could call strategic, but it’s certainly a pattern, and one I can’t feel sorry about, as it’s led me into some adventures and experiences that planning could never deliver.

But in a way, this latest move is significant not just because it wasn’t planned for, but because for years, I actively resisted the very idea of it. I moved down south two decades ago, even if it was less to seek my fortune than to escape a ground-floor flat in Glasgow that was so glacial I had to wear gloves to type. I had thought about London before, but it seemed so big, so far away, so much an anathema to my Northern soul, that I’d never really considered it until a bad break up and a year of sleeping under three duvets to stay warm suddenly made it a more appealing prospect. I answered an advert on a whim and, when I got the job, felt obligated to at least give it a go – little realising it was to be a job that would shape my career for the next 20 years, and lead me to the business I now run.

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Oh, but I loved London – for all its flaws, I love it still – and for years, I couldn’t envision living anywhere else. But as my forties started to loom, the difference in my circumstances and that of my friends started to bite. Sure, we were all broke and muddling along together in our 20s and early 30s, but it doesn’t take long in a city like London to start feeling the pinch of inequality: friends mysteriously buying flats way beyond their income and grudgingly admitting to “a little help” from their parents, an inheritance from grandma, the salary of a wealthy spouse. Single, with long-dead grandparents and a parental bank that could barely stretch to a good night out never mind the deposit on a flat, I was starting to feel outpaced.

Back home, it was actually worse. Low property prices meant that friends no better off than me but smart enough to buy young were not just settled, but heading into mortgage-free forties, a middle age of foreign holidays and nice cars. Looking at the friends and family up North – some of whom were much younger than me – I was astonished by how grown upeveryone seemed, how infantalised my life of landlords and loans and the constant hustle for gigs was in comparison. But at least I’m here, I thought. At least I went for it, even if I’m not entirely sure what ‘it’ actually is. That counts for something, right?

And so Not Moving Back became a talisman of its own. As long as I was ‘away’, I was still striving, maybe even thriving. I could still “make it”, or at least do a passable impression of having done so. It’s easy to paint your life as glamourous at a long-distance: hey, look at me at my gallery openings and eating canapes and drinking champagne at the top of the Gherkin and mingling with the stars at some West End press night. Look at me in my Georgian sea front flat with its balcony and high ceilings and gorgeous views. I mean, don’t look too close, or you’ll see the duct tape on the windows and the sky-high debt and the constant, exhausting hustle for work. But step back and everything is shiny.

(My mum, bless her, remained convinced till the end of her life that I was earning far, far more money than I let on, because she had this vague idea about ‘London life’ and London wages and because many of my jobs were far bigger on glamorous perks than they were on income. And so she would regularly drop heavy-handed hints about my perceived stinginess: “if only somebody would buy me a new washing machine!”. “If someonegave me five thousand pounds, that would solve so many of my problems.” Me too, mum. Me too.)

If distance was the only success I had attained, wouldn’t moving back be failure? I’d always thought if I came home it would be triumphantly – a best-selling author, an award-winning playwright, bringing back all that London money and retiring to my 5-bed mansion on the coast that I bought with the sale of a one-bed in Streatham. Up close, my glittering life would be revealed as the cheap bauble it really was, and compared to the actual adults with sorted, grown-up lives I would be surrounded by, I wouldn’t seem free-spirited and bold, just flaky and kinda broke.

In the end, of course, none of that mattered. I made the decision as I always have: pretty much off the cuff. Driven by a sense of disconnection with the city I lived in, and the sure-fire knowledge I couldn’t face another winter of single-glazing and duct-taped windows and working with a hot water bottle tucked under my knees, I made the move anyway. And, astonishingly, all of my friends and family haven’t spent all their time analysing and judging my life – I know, right? – because they are too busy with their own.

If a few people are puzzled that I am renting rather than buying (the estate agents were openly baffled that someone of my age and relative solvency wasn’t in the property market, especially when they heard I had been living down south) and that my life is not awash with the riches I earned in the Big Smoke, they have been mostly too polite to comment. I still have moments when I feel like a flaky kidult in a land of People Who Have Their Shit Together, but maybe that’s the artist’s lot. Or maybe that’s just me, and it’s always going to be so. Either way, I’m realising I’m sort of fine with it. And I’m discovering that in releasing all those notions of what a ‘triumphant return’ would have looked like, those externally-imposed definitions of failure or success, I’ve allowed myself to reconnect with people – and with my city – in a more honest, authentic and nourishing way. I didn’t have to earn my return with riches or acclaim: I just had to decide it was time.

Recently a friend, when I was bemoaning my precarious income and utter lack of savings in contrast to his nice secure job and his ringfenced cushy pension, cut short my complaints. “Well, you chose this, Tracey. And you keep choosing it.” And I realised he was right. My ship may just be a little tugboat chuntering up the Tyne rather than a sleek mega-yacht cruising Mediterranean seas, but at least I am still the captain. And I’m finding I like the view.

[Note: this post also appears on my writing blog, Dark Dates.

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In which the FOMO kicks in and I wonder if I have made a terrible, terrible mistake

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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Like my writing? You can support me in a whole load of ways (some of them for FREE!)

If you’re skint: RTs and shares always welcome. Reviews of anything of mine you have read on Amazon or Goodreads or any book related/social media site, no matter how short, help boost profile. Tell your friends how lovely I am (leave out the needy bit.)

Donate to my Ko-fi. All the cool kids have one. (I am not cool, obviously, but have been assured this is true).

Buy my books: Some are available for as little as a quid! Not these two, mind, but others.

Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues

Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1

Want some swag? Buy a bag or a tee. And be sure to send me a picture! I’m on Instagram (@traceysinclair23) or Twitter (@thriftygal)

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Metro life

I’ve lived in three cities with a metro system (4, I suppose, if you count Sheffield’s trams), and they are very different. Glasgow’s famous ‘clockwork orange’, whose cylindrical trains seemed so small the first time I saw them, I laughed (laughter which died down quickly when I got on and spotted, in no short order, a guy wearing a Freddie Krueger bladed glove and someone else bleeding profusely with a head injury: welcome to Glasgow!) (I must stress, I lived in Glasgow for a long time, and loved it, but there were times when I returned and it made a… strong… first impression).

London’s underground was everything people say it is, for better or worse. On the one hand, and incredibly clever feat of engineering that spans most of one of the world’s most complex cities. On the other, an un-air-conditioned, sweaty, strike-plagued, overcrowded, dirty hellscape full of rude people who would throw their granny on the live rail to get a seat. (One of my friends once managed to get into a crammed carriage just before the doors closed, only to have a fellow passenger PHYSICALLY PICK HER UP, plonk her back on the platform and drag his girlfriend inside in her place).

The Metro, of course, was the system I grew up with. I remember being dazzled when it opened as a child, a fast and easy route from my Felling neighbourhood to the glories of Newcastle city centre. After I left, I only used it rarely: my mum lived within walking distance of town, so I used to just amble down the road whenever I needed to. Since she died, I have most often stayed with friends in Wallsend or Sunderland, or family in Heworth, so have become necessarily reacquainted with it.

Much of it is unchanged, at least to my memory: the boxy cars, the bumblebee signage of yellow and black; the terrible mural at Monument featuring barely recognisable local figures, the Latin at Wallsend. But it’s a very different experience from using the London tube, and it is taking me a little time to get used to it.

For a start, the gaps between the trains seem ridiculous when you are used to London – 12 minutes between trains? Why aren’t people rioting? (The trick, I have been sagely informed by fellow Northerners-cum-Londoners, is to use the Metro app and think of them as trains, not tubes). Although some of the trains are slightly shabby, they are mostly tidy and clean (ish) – they are also both more spacious and, conversely, less well-designed to handle a crowd: tube trains seem better designed for standing, if you need to. The ‘open door’ buttons are not just for show, too, which has led to a few near misses at my stop, as I complacently wait for the doors to pop open, unsolicited. (In London, it’s a sign of being a tourist if you actually press the button).

It can be as unreliable as London – I cancelled my first yoga class because the metros were off the Sunday I needed to get to it; and I had to cab it back from South Shields on Friday as the lines were down after my play. But at least, in a smaller city, there are alternatives: the buses are good, and not usually too crazy-busy, and a taxi is an affordable option (albeit not all the time, and obviously not for everyone).

But it’s the Metro etiquette that has thrown me the most. On a recent visit, before my relocation, I nearly missed my stop because an elderly gent stepped back, waving me past and I was so puzzled by his gesture I didn’t get that he was inviting me to get off first. I hung back, not wanting to push past him, and we stood in a polite standoff until I twigged, muttered a hasty thanks and left.

In the main (I have been wearily informed by long-term locals this is not always the case), people are quick to stand for those who need seats. I have realised Metro etiquette if you catch someone’s eye is not to look away hastily but to acknowledge them with a slight smile – hey, look at us, we’re all on this train together. Occasionally, this will even lead to chat: an old lady will explain her reasons for reading the Metro newspaper (‘it’s all rubbish, but it’s something to read’), and I got quite the lecture on bird-keeping from a woman carrying a canary in a cage. In London, I would have veered away from her as a potential loon: in Newcastle, I happily made small-talk, nodded where she needed me to (yes, I can imagine canaries are territorial). Which made me think, it’s not just that the Metro is different. Maybe it’s that I am, too.

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Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues

Paranormal adventure with snark and sexiness: Dark Dates: Cassandra Bick Chronicles: Volume 1