Guest Post: How I learned to love living in London

Cole Beauchamp was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize & the Mslexia Novel competition in one magical year (2013), and has been beavering away on her novel since then. She lives in London with her girlfriend and their two children. Cole is represented by Juliet Mushens.
One of my favourite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, decided to stop writing in English and switch to Italian in 2012. She’s just written (in Italian) her memoir, “In Other Words” – which she had Ann Goldstein translate into English – to describe this experience.

Born to Indian parents who immigrated to the US, Lahiri won the Pulitzer with her first collection of short stories, “Interpreter of Maladies”. She found fame after her first book disconcerting: “All of my writing comes from a place where I feel invisible…But a year after my first book was published, I lost my anonymity.” Her answer has been a linguistic exile in Italy.

I find this idea of escaping to a foreign tongue so fascinating.          

I have had two escapes of my own – one from the US to London when I finished university in 1991, and the second to leave the UK for Buenos Aires in 2007. Admittedly the first was more geographical than linguistic (though the phrase “Two countries divided by a common language” remains apt), but both times it very much felt like fleeing. Moving to London in ‘91 meant escaping George Bush Sr’s Gulf War and all that was driving me crazy (politics, racism, you know – the little stuff) about the US. The second move to Buenos Aires meant living in Spanish, which taught me about not being in control, about returning to a much more primitive level of communication, about freeing myself from perfection and remembering how to be happy bumbling along.

It was only on my return to London after Buenos Aires that I really came to peace with living in this city. Until then, I’d always felt a bit like Lahiri – discontent, displaced, alien. I didn’t belong in the US, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in the UK either. Islanders are suspicious, and it takes so long to break into people’s friendship circles. I wanted to continue wandering and discovering. The nomad in me didn’t want to stay put.

What I learned to love about London is perhaps the opposite of Lahiri’s journey – that I write best in a place I am visible. I couldn’t write in Spanish, and what I learned in Buenos Aires was that I need to write. And I need a community of writers. My family and I thought about staying but made a conscious decision to come back to the UK. Part of that decision was a vow to celebrate what was great about living in London.

I love London’s sense of history – the way pubs from the eighteenth century sit alongside modern glass buildings. I love walking down a street that Samuel Pepys or Dickens described.

I love the fact that literature still counts here. On the tube, people are playing on their phones, yes, but so many are reading books. For a writer that’s everything.

I love the incredible variety of people you see walking down the street, and the variety of languages you hear spoken around you.

I love my favourite hang outs, the South Bank and Tate Modern; every time I go I find something to stimulate dormant parts of my brain.

I love the Thames, and how it winds and turns. I love the illuminated magic of Albert Bridge as I head back to South London after a night out.

Most of all, I love the knowledge that it is here, in London, that I have found my tribe. I’ve been able to gather a community of writers around me, and it’s writing in English that has made that possible. 

As much as I admire Lahiri’s intellectual curiosity, her linguistic and emotional journeys, as much as I recognize many of the emotions she’s described, for me the answer has been to stay put in my adopted land.


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