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The Beginning: Breaking up with London

By Jess Murray

This is the first instalment in a series of monthly personal essays charting my move from the UK to Canada. The series explores what it means to move continents, away from everything you know, and towards an uncertain future. It may serve as a companion to people going through similar journeys around the world.
I started working on this piece way back in February, when COVID-19 seemed a distant threat; something I told my mum not to worry so much about. Back then, my only concerns were the horrors of capitalism, the climate crisis, and how I would go about extricating myself from a city I’ve lived in for more than six years. I had planned to move from London to Halifax, Canada on the 4th of June, but now, like many of us, my plans have become abstract dreams over which I have little control.

Fears about whether I’ll be able to take this step in my life, which has been percolating for a year and a half, feel superficial in the face of tens of thousands of deaths worldwide. And yet – this is how we live our lives anyway, fussing over minutiae while abominations are committed across the world and on our doorsteps. It’s just that this one crosses heavily policed borders into the presumed safety of western countries and upends the balancing act of capital. So while we worry over what the world will look like after this; obsess over the latest announcements and statistics; and fear for our loved ones, many of us are left with gaping holes of time in which to ponder the meaning and direction of our own lives.

And so, here I am, looking back at my life in a city I can now barely touch. I remember the fairytale moment I first saw the tall pillars of my university, feeling like the Carrie Bradshaw of academia, bag of books in hand. London was so much bigger and more exciting than the Somerset town I’d grown up in. I looked forward to intellectual conversations and losing myself in busy streets. I shook off the introversion I’d borrowed from a boyfriend whom I soon broke up with, and set off to become the woman I wanted to be. 

It wasn’t as simple as that, though, and I soon found myself depressed, poor, and behind on my university work. In pursuing freedom, I’d come up against parts of myself I didn’t know existed, grappling with the trauma of my childhood. No longer trapped in a town where I didn’t fit, I became trapped by my own unfulfilled needs and lack of basic survival skills. I found some respite in the domestic – turning vegetarian and teaching myself to cook, and some in the steady love of my flatmates, who made me food as I wrote four essays in three days. 

I struggled with isolation a lot in London, spending an entire summer holed up in a bedroom, only leaving occasionally to go out partying all night. The city was so huge and overwhelming, and I was constantly moving to different areas. I felt my roots dragging behind me, never staying anywhere long enough to plant them. And so I wrapped them around people I loved, and we holed up together in a montage of flats and houses, cooking and watching all six seasons of Gossip Girl. 

Eventually, the intimacy became cloying, and I realised that I was stuck in a cycle of dependency in which I could not grow. By this time, I had found a workplace that gave me some semblance of community, and I moved out and withdrew myself from the life I had lived for three years. My subsequent isolation was compounded when I broke my ankle: I became completely untethered, a stranger in my new home. Once healed, I entered my second puberty: awkward, difficult – more like your skin being ripped apart as you turn into a werewolf than flourishing. I tried dating; I went to therapy; I started taking antidepressants.

At some point in the middle of this painful metamorphosis, I went to stay with my dad in Halifax, Canada, with the express purpose of “learning how to be profoundly alone”. I craved independence and self-sufficiency, but I hadn’t yet realised that there were healthy and nourishing relationships which could help me achieve this. Fortunately, I found one of these relationships anyway and ended up in a long-term, long-distance relationship with a man called Mike. We enjoyed the city together – getting drunk; going hiking; taking the ferry.

Halifax was a window into a new life – I adopted an ease I hadn’t felt since childhood, and I allowed myself to imagine a different kind of future. There was a thriving local music scene and easily accessible nature, and people smiled at you in the street. But I had to return to London, and my life was still there, bare bones of a life as it was. I was still depressed, but my relationship provided me with small islands in the tumultuous sea of my life, as Mike and I visited each other every three months, and I made the decision to move to Canada. He hated London, how people say “Alright?” (“What does it mean? How am I supposed to reply?”); how crowded the tube is (“People pay to live here?”); how clear wealth divisions are (“It’s a neoliberal hellscape.”). And I loved Halifax, although I soon realised that my problems didn’t evaporate while I was there. It might be a better environment in which to grow, but there was still a lot of work I needed to put into being ok.

I faithfully went to therapy every week; took my medication; implemented healthy routines. But I also relapsed, felt guilty a lot, and found it painful taking steps towards the person I wanted to be. I used the prospect of moving to Canada as a salve for my wounds – I just had to keep running long enough to get to June, and then everything would be ok. Then, the country shut down. My work closed; we went into lockdown; Canada shut its borders. I found myself in a liminal space: all of the assumptions I’d previously held on to had vanished, and been replaced with humdrum ambiguity. In the new silence and slowness, I realised two things. Firstly, I had been waiting to be saved by moving to Canada, by being with Mike, thereby engaging in the kind of dependency I had worked so hard to escape from. Secondly, in lockdown, my life hadn’t changed all that much. I’ve done many things in London – made incredible friends, worked lots of jobs, engaged with leftist politics, been to gigs, cycled all around. But at this point I have boiled all of this down to its essence, subsisting on the meagre remains of the life I once lived. Basically, I’ve already broken up with London. I’m just waiting – for who knows how long – to leave.

Jess Murray is a writer, editor and service worker living in London.  She knows way too much about astrology and enjoys talking about politics, emotions and how you should definitely dye your hair to overcome trauma. 

***The portrait of the author  was drawn by Candice George, a dear friend who Jess will sadly have to leave behind.