Leaving London : A Reflection

The latest journey has come to an end. Looking towards the challenges ahead, so too can we look back:

(April 2014)

The creative writing workshop was almost always a square, bordered by opinion but also quiet; the passing of palms across paper, the scratch of nib-width canals, the fill and spill of ink and ideas. That square span and span in my head for years as a student, in various classrooms lit by varying strengths of light, varying lengths of shadow cast across my journal’s pages. You can become a writer there.

That square spins further and further back in time away from me now. I graduated and took on a bar job, hoping the flexible hours would suit the aspirations of a new novelist. For a while, they did, and friendships were made, and beer was drunk, but London had the better of me, for I could not stay in my beloved Camden bedsit, cramped but crazy above the High Street, on my barman’s wages alone. I took on writer’s work instead, summarising press clippings for a living; an economic use of language all round. The job helped my editorial eye widen, and the evening shift work suited my personal writing ambitions. After a year or so I had a full manuscript and I was ready to find a publisher. I felt like a writer.

Yet seasons in London come quick and pass fast, pushing people on in their routines, regardless of who they are or what they dream. Life spins onwards like that workshop table spins backwards in time: always away from us. I’d since discovered other writers had taken jobs in my office, some of them many years ago. What had become of their books and their plays, their dreams and their aspirations? Did they still say, ‘I am a writer,’ when they met strangers, when they looked in the mirror, when the shuddering need for reassurance woke them in the middle of the night?

Every day on my way to work I walked through Bunhill Fields, past the graves of Blake, of Defoe, of other long-dead writers, to remind myself that my job was a writers’ graveyard too. I felt vulnerable: if monotony choked my creativity, I might as well be buried in some such lonesome lair as well. Death can come to a writer before the oblivion of the end; the end of chance, the end of ambition, the end of ideas can reach into our lives if we’re not careful to keep the promises we made to ourselves ‘round those spinning workshop tables years before. I hoped my daily walks amongst the dead would reaffirm my identity as a writer, and so with each penny I left for Blake, I continued to work, continued to write.

Now that my student days are long since lived, it occurs to me that creativity is not anchored to any one place. It lurks in the subconscious, it can be coaxed and fed with writing and reading wherever you are in the world. It is also true that whilst monotony chokes, experience lifts. I love London; it is home to my heart. But Blake sings true in his song to the capital; London can put marks of weakness, marks of woe into every face it charters. When the opportunity opened to travel in Asia, I seized it. I left my job, left my flat, picked up my journal and said to myself, ‘I am a writer,’ and started to pack a bag.


It is in the warm gloaming that I wake amidst crickets to wait for the foreign dawn chorus to start. Rising melodies played on alien scales, calls and answers in the quiet, warbles and chirps gather my memories, and I picture the graveyard at Old Street, before sunrise, empty and silent, far away on the other side of the world. I see Blake’s grave, just as I saw it myriad times before, flowered kindly with a nosegay, whispering inspiration to generations of writers to come.

The fan creaks. I look over towards my journal, through the shadows of the morning, where the pen waits in the gathering birdsong.


©James Bruce May, 2014

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