looking for utopia in london
London's romance is strongest in its suburbs and satellite towns. Kev Kharas of Real Lies writes of growing up just outside the city, being sucked in, and finding a life there; the places in which to lose yourself, find yourself, make friends and meet...
My earliest and most vivid memories are of London, not that I knew it at the time. The house that I grew up in way out in the suburbs, at the western terminus of what will soon be Crossrail, backed on to a stretch of motorway called the A404(M). My mum was still very protective of me and my sisters when we were that age -- I was about 8, I think -- and I remember she'd usually want us in bed before Eastenders. On summer nights in particular this caused a problem: I'd lay there with the curtains wide open, the sun obviously still up, turning the sky above the motorway various pastel shades of blue, turqoise and pink. As the light gradually faded and the sounds of the other local kids, still out in the street playing, came in through the open window, I'd listen to the noise of the traffic -- or rather the air moving around the traffic, displaced by bonnets and engines in a way that made it seem like the lanes were singing -- and wonder where all those people were headed so late at night, and what they'd do when they finally got where they were going.
Having spent my entire adult life in London, I now know where they were going and I've a pretty good idea of what they were getting up to. I'm in a band called Real Lies and the debut album we've just released is largely set in the London night, in its clubs, pubs, Lebara stands and bedrooms, on its A-roads, overground trains and Suicide Bridges. It's a record about moving to the city and trying to bend it to the will of your own imagination, trying to locate something mutated and warped that began in a child's brain and grew into a clearer but still incomplete teenage idea of what city life was like, clues sent your way through London Tonight news reports, Crystal Palace players with Streets of Rage haircuts, foil-wrapped aerials straining for the pirates, Martin Fowler's lightning bolt gang jacket, Stephen Lawrence's killers getting pelted with rotten eggs. It's set in London purely because that was the closest big city to us growing up. I'm sure other places have the same gravitational pull -- I'm sure there are people out there who feel the same way about Chicago or Dublin, Barcelona or Paris.
The truth of London lies somewhere between the private joy of illegal radio frequencies and the public misery of racist murderers; it's a city that deals in shades of grey. That said, I've found utopia three times while living here and each has been like a two-year-long fireworks display. The first was at the Lake House, a spider and ladybird-infested five-bed cottage in a nature reserve hidden behind a 10-foot fence made of concrete and barbed wire. We had a reservoir in the back garden and the best after hours nightclub in London in our front room, and would regularly throw parties that would last three or four days for upwards of 40 people per night. Unbelievably, it was in Zone 2 and the rent was peanuts. A lot has been said about gentrification lately. The reality for me personally, and us as a band, has been having to move house each year and one of our favourite clubs closing down every six months or so -- the second utopia, Eternal, was a night we put on at one such club, People's on Holloway Road. (You can read more about that here.) These aren't personal crises that measure up to what's been suffered by the Londoners shipped off by councils to alien cities, hundreds of miles from friends and family, but sure enough, we had to leave the Lake House when the cranes came and the luxury flats started going up. It's impossible to think we'll ever live anywhere like that again and People's looks like it's gonna turn into a wine bar. But while the venue is important, it's not crucial. It's the feeling that is and once you've found it, you need to keep hold of it; to keep the fire burning.
What has remained throughout all the ups and downs are the people. More than anything else, our album is about friendship, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say that. You understand why people want to hold on to their favourite flats and socials arenas, but whine too much and you can sound stupid and complacent. You can't move to one of the biggest cities on the planet and then complain that it's not preserved in amber the moment you step off the train at Waterloo or Paddington. But what you can find that lasts are mates, a gang, a likeminded crew of girls and boys that function as a support group somewhere between Barnardos and the mafia. The high points are nothing without them and they'll be there to catch you when everything falls apart.
Many of the high points and the falling apart can be traced back to nights out in London, which can be extremely disorientating when you've moved from a place where there's only one nightclub that stays open late on Fridays. In these satellite towns, the nightclub functions as a kind of black hole, sucking in a whole town's worth of lust, neuroses, grudges and puke in the space of three sweaty hours. In London, that one black hole is replaced by a galaxy of places in which to lose yourself, find yourself, make friends and meet the love of your life every single night. At the same time, it can be tough figuring out when to go to bed, stay put, settle down, grow up.
I recently went through a break up, the most traumatic one to date. The end of the third utopia. Since it happened I've often wondered if London might be too much now, if the bad ghosts might outnumber the good, if I might finally be chased from the city I love by the memories I've created for myself here. I wonder if I've always been hardwired to behave in these self-destructive patterns or if London has taught them to me. In the lower moments I fantasise about pulling a French exit and running off, alone, to a small village that smells of peat, buying an Irish wolfhound and getting by painting and decorating. Clock in at 9AM, out of work by 5PM, in the pub, with the dog, before Eastenders. But then I remember my friends, Eternal, the Lake House, the third utopia. I remember too that wherever I did decide to run to would have to be reached by road. And I don't think roads will ever sing anything other than London to me now.
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Text Kev Kharas
Still taken from North Circular by Real Lies, directed by Joe Alexander