London Meditations: Prologue

In the first installment of a new column, our man in London mulls the forces driving the new urban migration

By / February 2015

The baseball diamond of my childhood started at the bottom of the stairs off our back porch. The infield sat on a tilt, the outfield tucked beneath the trees. The field carried its own special rules. Pegging was allowed. Rosters rarely ran deeper than two. Home runs had to thread their way through the thick tree cover along the back fence. Foul balls equaled outs.

The local game took place most afternoons, my greatest—and slightly older—rival walking around the corner or cutting across the neighbor’s yard.

The Mississippi woods were on our doorstep. Tangled brush and trees tucked back along the house, stretching into a sprawling, pine-draped park. Summers involved poison ivy and games of tag. Winter, football and jumping bikes. The woods were our kingdom—the ditch cutting through it, our river.

My little brothers still play in those woods. The rest of my family still calls the Magnolia state home. But these days, I live in a new kingdom with a different park around the corner and an ancient river that frames my runs. Football and fielding are defined differently in this “postcode.” There are mounted police officers at the derby here. I am an immigrant surrounded by people who speak the same language.

The journey from a small southern American town to South West London was never a deliberate course for my life.

Sociologists and demographers would say that I am living a trend, part of a great reverse migration drawing people back to the cities they once left behind. The new pioneers, explorers and settlers that London used to send out, are now heading back. It is happening in America, and it is happening globally. In 1990, there were 10 “mega-cities” (defined as 10 million+); in 2014, there were 28. By 2050, the UN projects 66% of the world’s population will live in cities. India, China and Africa will boom.

Growing up in a town of 18,000, I would have been frightened, even put off, by these stats. Cities conjured images of Manhattan’s concrete canyons, the sprawl of Houston, the smog-choked interstates of Los Angeles. Time passed. I had opportunities to visit cities beyond the US, mountain-nestled Tegucigalpa, the winding corridors of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic, the roads of Istanbul spreading and sprouting like so much Delta kudzu. Cities grew on me. But they were never more than places to visit. I couldn’t imagine calling one of these places home.

My path to London was made up of small decisions, an openness to adventure, and a wife with a burgundy passport. As stamps filled my passport, immigration statutes piled up in my head. Exhilarating and exhausting, there are many days when life still seems stuck in jet lag as I try and keep up with the changes. Now I have spent six-ish months dialling the prefix 001 for America, fumbling for the correct change and trying to covertly stare at each of the blue historic plaques.

Along the way, I’ve been left with time to think on some of the motivations of this great reverse migration.

First, the 21st Century is about the knowledge economy, which thrives on proximity. While the Internet brought the world closer together, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. People need to work near other people. Unplanned conversations at the pub or coffee shop or in a cubicle provide different perspectives, fuel for imagination. They serve as catalyst for creativity and invention.

London is nothing if not a city built on connecting people with other people. Connection is part of its DNA, buried deep in the soil and broadcast as a soundtrack through the air. Each day, 24 million journeys take place across the 150 year-old London Underground and Transport for London network. 1,400 flights in and out of Heathrow offer a backing roar. Thirty-two boroughs knit together by a central nervous system firing people and ideas across the synapses of each line and train and bus.

Technology unlocks the city, making it more accessible, understandable. The boroughs crackle with Wifi. CityMapper makes navigation far easier than the A-Z. All of London is open for exploration and only a tap and a short journey and a walk away.

A second motivation fueling this return to cities has to do with livability. Increasingly, city planning, at least here in the UK, is focused around reconnecting humans with nature. Connectivity means little if the sky choked in concrete and the air with smog. Green-space might be an unnecessary term for much of Mississippi, but London’s commitment to maintaining its status as one of the world’s greenest cities means that living here actually summons memories of the communal green streets of my childhood.

It’s the plots of land devoted for “common” use (over a hundred registered across the city), the emphasis on cycling and the preserved architectural history and sight-lines. This means that even when I’m in the middle of Zone 1, I can walk along the river or stretch out on the grass. A green city makes the city more human.

I am a long way from that tilted baseball diamond. My vocabulary has expanded, and I leave the “ham” off when I go to Birmingham. But I still say y’all. During the fall, I checked the Washington Nationals boxscore before crawling out of bed. My roots are firmly planted in the Mississippi pines and as I make a home, this column is just a few reflections and impressions of the meeting of Southern America and Southern London. It’s a postcard back to America, not a tome.

As I explore London, I try to keep two rules in the back of my mind. First is to not assume that what is true of London is true of all of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. What’s true of my part of London might not even ring true to the end of the District line.

Second is to remember that the world is at your doorstep, but only if you make it outside. It’s easy to believe the lie that online experience can take the place of reality. Instagram is not the same as experiencing. Documentaries can never replace sound and taste and touch. You cannot “do” a city in a morning or a day.

Like the countless cups of tea I’ve had since arriving, the bricks and mortar and water need time to steep properly around you, simmering in the spices and flavours of Brick Lane, the stacks of the British Library, the graffiti of Camden Stables Market.

Any city is wasted if it becomes too familiar, if you get complacent and settled. This column and these postcards are a chance to stretch the familiar, to make impertinent expeditions and to get outside of my village. I want to push down the different tube lines, explore the lanes and courts of Samuel Johnson, and drive into the thatched-roof lined countryside.

At the end of it, maybe these stories will be bright and vivid enough to post, read, and stick on the refrigerator door.


Nathan Martin works in education and technology. He lives with his wife in London.