Leaving London: one year on

A year ago today I moved from London to Brighton. I was awake at 5am this morning; I have so much to do and not enough time to do it all in, but at dawn everything was eerily calm and I had time to read the piece I’d written just before I moved down here. It was bittersweet: full of sadness and hope and excitement at the start of something new.

I didn’t know what to expect when I moved to Brighton – I’d not lived anywhere else as an adult and even though people say Brighton is like London, it genuinely is not. There were lots of practical things I didn’t know in a ridiculous Pulp’s Common People kind of way: I didn’t know how to set up a standing order to pay my rent (oh, how the estate agents laughed at that). I didn’t know how to get a bus (and someone had to do it with me the first time I did it). I didn’t know how not to do a Paddington Bear hard stare when someone smiled at me … and I didn’t know all I had to do was just smile back.

I’m smiling a lot now.

At the weekend I sat on the pavement with a street poet and talked shit. It wasn’t entirely for altruistic reasons, but what stood out, for me, was when he said people in London don’t see what’s right in front of them. He meant it (I think) from a practical perspective: in London people don’t stop and take the time to look at their surroundings; they don’t see a poet on the floor writing his heart out for pennies.

But I realised it could be taken in another way: people in London don’t see what’s right in front of them in an emotional or spiritual sense. Of course I’m generalising about other people, but when I was in London I didn’t see everything I had, everything I could have had and the opportunities available to me. I didn’t see that I was at the top of my game in one of the major cities in the world and my God, my life was amazing. Obviously it is still real life with all the hurdles that real life entails, but those hurdles are set against a backdrop of having everything at your disposal if you’re in the fortunate position to take it. It’s not like that in Brighton. Brighton, for many people, is rock bottom – it’s the literal bottom of the country; there’s a dark underbelly where life is as bad as life can get.

In London I wrapped myself up in a bubble of middle-class life. It happened so gradually that I didn’t know it was happening, and it’s now, a year on, that I can see it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still self-absorbed and annoying, but I stopped being a scrappy girl from a working-class town and complained that the flat I owned – a fucking flat in a fucking nice part of London that I owned all by myself – was too small. My God. I mean, that flat is tiny, admittedly, but I didn’t see how fortunate I was. It’s quite shaming to admit it; embarrassing, really.

So – my year in Brighton. I’ve kissed socialists!! Plural!!! I’ve taken up life drawing as a hobby. I’ve punched a seagull in the face and I’ve danced under the stars with strangers. But I’ve also made friends with a type of person I’d forgotten had existed: people who like me for me, and not for my career choices and achievements (and in many ways, it’s best not to talk about my time at the Daily Mail down here anyway – it is Brighton, after all). They don’t care how much I weigh, what I wear, who I know and what I’ve done. They’re the opposite of a lot of people I know in London.

And it was these people who helped me on my way. One of the main reasons I wanted to move out of London was to see who I was without the city as my comfort blanket, and I realised pretty quickly I didn’t want to keep writing novels. The hardest part of the process was telling my agents – my amazing, lovely agents who changed my life into something that most people can only dream of – that I no longer wanted it and I was turning down two book deals. People work their whole lives for an opportunity like that and I felt ungrateful. I was also petrified because if I no longer wrote novels, how would I define myself? Being outside of London taught me that I don’t have to define myself by my job. Lots of people don’t, and a good career is not essential to being liked or being worthwhile. It’s so simple, but it was so beyond me.

It was in the shadow of making the decision to stop writing novels that a tiny idea popped into my head. I’d begun to feel more and more like the girl I was before I moved to London, and you know what? That girl was pretty fucking cool. She had a fanzine that she made on a photocopier, and she dreamed one day of running a magazine company with a penthouse at the top of King’s Reach Tower. She wouldn’t just be an editor of the NME or the Melody Maker, she would be the big boss. She would insist that every cover would feature Blur, not Oasis, and sod the circulation in the north.

Stamford Street may no longer look how it did in the late 1990s, and the media landscape may be completely different, but the ambition that I’d tucked away for so long – and my Frank Underwood-style power-hungry vibe – somehow found it’s way back to me again. I may not want or need the penthouse apartment, but the idea of running my own media group – or, more specifically – my own local newspaper group, is the most amazing idea ever. It’s the right idea for me.

So I’m doing it. This summer (end of July, in fact) my first newspaper is launching (print, not digital – I’m going old-school). Less than three months after the idea popped in my head there are real, live advertisers on board, I’m building a team of amazing people, there are job ads everywhere, and my ridiculous ambition – my first, really, after wanting to be an agony aunt for Just Seventeen – is turning into a reality. It’s crazy and it’s exciting and I’m never, ever starting a company while buying a house again. But it’s brilliant. I have to stuff 100 envelopes tonight, and even that is brilliant. Because everyone I have spoken to about it gets it. It’s not going to be a normal newspaper, but if you know me, you’d know that, right?

I also know it will be difficult – my God, it is so fucking hard already and I have so much respect for anyone who’s started a business with nothing but a dream and a smile – but it’s my difficult. My publishing company. My alternate universe to the one I lived in when I was in London. For years I’ve wondered what people do when they fulfill their dreams, as I fulfilled mine four times over with four published novels. And now I know; they find another dream – or, in my case, rediscover one hidden away by the ego they developed with their success – and they start again. I am starting again. And it’s the best thing ever.

I left London hoping to find something, and while most people would think that means everlasting true love, or a sense of purpose rehabilitating punched seagulls, I found something better: I found my future. And yay to that.

PS, lots of people have asked if I’ve left my job. I have not left my job, I love my job. I’m doing this as well as my day job. Because that’s how I roll. And also, I’m not that stupid.

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