clive martin: what does britishness mean in 2019?
Journalist Clive Martin left London in 2017, disenchanted by the city he grew up in. In search of an alternative Britain, he headed for the north.
In October of last year, we invited a series of young writers to reflect on what Britishness means to them for The Superstar Issue of i-D. From the nostalgia of home, to fears over rising rents, to the sense of displacement from the place we thought we once knew, our identity has never been more complex. So what does being British mean for a country facing its biggest shift in decades? And does it still matter? Read the full series here.
For the last year or so, I’ve been on the run. I’m running from a lot of things – but London seems a good place to lay the blame. In the midwinter of 2017 I ran from the city that taught me everything, the city I lived in for so long. I ran from my past and my present, I ran from my habits and my debts, my friends and my enemies. Moving my earthly and heavenly possessions across this great land, from city to suburb to country – an iNomad.
I’d spent the better half of the previous decade stuck in the ever-diminishing death-deal that is renting other people’s property in London. Like just about everyone else I knew I’d grown tired of forking over the cream of my income to absentee landlords, arguing about boilers with men in shiny suits, ingesting the mould in between the appliances and the walls, safeguarding investments for people who only cared if I lived or died because the tenancy agreement stated they had to.
I had been part of the generation that really thrived in the city. The generation that gave us short-form video content and pop-ups and wearing tracksuits in nightclubs. The generation that cleared the path for the luxury offensive to come, the generation that had nothing to show for it but our overdrafts.
For the last months of my tenure in London it felt as if I was living in a city of ghosts. Every doorway, alleyway, alcove, pub toilet and Turkish restaurant seemed almost spiritually imbued with some half-remembered fight, fumble or fear. From the backseats of cabs and the top decks of buses I could see these ghosts looming outside bars that were now cafes and clubs that were now building sites, their eyes still wild and their septums still white. They haunted the long nights of a London winter like the spectres of child princes in stately homes, settling old scores, finishing their drinks in eternity. When I got home I would look at these people’s Facebooks, and saw their bodies as they are now; smiling and toasting on weekends in Budapest and workmate’s weddings – but to me these people were indelibly linked to these streets. I was living in a hipster war cemetery, and my name was being etched into a grave.
I found an excuse to leave when it all came to a head at my last residence; a broken bath, an unpaid bill, a feud with the neighbours, the usual story. I fled to keep things on my own terms, leaving in a midnight Zipvan. I spent some months in the Zone 5 suburbs I grew up in, but the city still felt too close. I appreciated the change of speed, the vast, flight path skies that sometimes turned violet and ochre in the light pollution, but I knew that if I really wanted to change I needed more distance. So I headed north.
Somewhere on the M1 between Luton and Leicester, I had a near-death incident when a sheet of aluminium flew off the side of a London bus headed for scrap. If it wasn’t an omen I don’t know what is. Something was telling me I was heading for pastures unknown, where there were forces greater than e-mails and bus times, where there was weather and industry and nature. Where death wasn’t just something for other people in other places.
My destination was a small spa town on the north east coast, built by Quakers and beaten by the sea. I was headed there out of familial convenience rather than blind faith, but still I told myself this was the work of fate. It certainly felt like some greater force was bringing me there. I told myself I was harnessing the vibes of the universe, emerging from a lifelong cocoon of metropolitan fear and prejudice, and presenting myself as a new man before a new world. Even if it was only two hours on a train to Kings Cross. Maybe I was over-thinking it.
I planned to spend my days doing press ups, walking on the beach, making salads, picking up dog shit and watching the great American box sets – but I felt the tentacles of the city, even here. My young barber had twigged that I was a journalist from London, and seemed fascinated by the place in the same way people in Hackney are fascinated by favelas and landslides. He asked me about UK Drill and five pound pints. I told him everything I knew.
In the concourse outside a supermarket, I saw a group of youths; all JD’d up in tapered trackies and tech-fleece hoodies, holding their phones at an angle, loitering with purpose. As I got closer I realised they were listening to Stormzy, occasionally mouthing the words at the pavement and making limp gun fingers. I wondered what they knew about Croydon, what it meant to them, how it had been repackaged and sold to the rest of the UK as a sexy and notorious concept-city like Medellin or Miami. I wondered what I really knew about Croydon anymore.
I realised that my efforts to flee London could only ever be futile in our current climate. That city in the south east has the whole country in an arm lock now. Its looks, its language, its idiosyncrasies and its prices were migrating across the nation, enrapturing a youth in search of an ‘other’. I was less interested in being a Londoner than ever before, yet my status as an ex-dweller gave me a level of intrigue. I started to miss it for the first time. I imagined this was what being in witness protection was like, running from reality and indulging in the memories.
Photography Sam Rock