I believe that you’re not truly an adult until you can fully accept how much of a dick you were at 21.
Now at 24 I can say it: my goodness, what a dick I was. Any larger of a dick and they’d have to keep me in formaldehyde, like they did with Rasputin’s penis at The Russian Museum of Erotica.
When I left uni in London, three months after turning 21, I really believed that the working world owed me a favour. Within six months, I thought I would be fighting off job offers. I thought I’d witness a brawl between the Tate, Penguin and the BBC over whether I’d put on an exhibition based on my dissertation, release a collection of essays based on my devastatingly witty thoughts or be on television right this moment.
Turns out the only brawl there would be in the next year was between my rent and my bank balance. 12 months after graduating, I was forced to leave London because I couldn’t get a decent enough job to pay even the modest rent on my flat in the outskirts of south-west London. I said goodbye to my friends and the giant patch of damp in my bathroom that’s been there for so long that it has begun to feel like part of the family. I packed up my worldly goods (considerably lighter than the year before, as I’d had to sell a lot of stuff to make rent.). I bought a Meal Deal with the last of my money, which I got from returning my Oyster Card, and I was leaving on the midnight train.
(Well, the 4:30 coach, but that doesn’t quite sound as romantic.)
At the time, it felt like the end of everything. Despite living in squalor for a lot of my time there, London was the city I had always wanted to live in, and over my three years of university I’d had the best years of my life. And now I was forced to leave it, and go back to my tiny room in my mum’s house in the suburbs of Bristol. My teenage posters were still on the wall, and it was like I’d never left, like the past three years had been for nothing. I even went back to the job I had had at 18.
If the streets leading into London were paved with gold, then the streets leading out of it are paved with broken dreams, unpaid bills and disappointment. Or potholed tarmac, which is the pavement version of this.
Turns out, however, that being forced to go home was one of the best things that happened in my life.
Not because living back in my childhood home itself was great. It wasn’t. All of my friends had left the city years ago, and all my favourite places to hang out had become chain restaurants. Every day wasn’t exactly miserable, but it was just constantly mediocre. Nothing happened.
What it forced me to do, however, was face up to some ugly truths. If I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in my childhood bedroom, with its posters of daleks and ‘00s-era indie bands, I would have to work a hell of a lot harder than I had been at following my dreams.
I made a pact with myself. In six months, I would be back in London with a job as a writer.
I got organised. Every day, after my shift at my boring job I would go straight to my desk, write a thousand words and apply to at least one job. One of the great things about moving back to a city where I didn’t really know anyone anymore is that I had nothing to do but write and apply for jobs. See a film or exhibition? I’d write a review of it. Made something good to eat? I’d write up the recipe. Eventually, I thought, I’d have enough good stuff (on top of the stuff I’d written for student newspapers over the last three years) that someone somewhere would have no choice but to take me seriously and hire me.
And guess what? It worked. Exactly six months to the week that I left, I was on a train with a notepad full of work, my battered record player and a job as a reporter. I had stopped believing that I was destined to be a success and started believing that I would have to work my ass off to get where I wanted to be. When I started taking myself seriously, so did employers, who could now see how willing to work I was. If I hadn’t been forced to confront that what I was doing after uni wasn’t working and had to leave London, I never would have been able to return to it with what felt like a dream job. It wasn’t a dream job, but that’s a story for another day. I am, however, still a full-time professional writer living in London, and I owe it all to leaving the city in the first place.