This winter, I changed jobs. Everything about the new job is an improvement on the old one, but one thing that’s so palpably better that it makes me want to weep with the relief is the location. Until late last year, I was commuting from glorious Herne Hill to the wilderness of White City, a journey of roughly ten miles, all of them unwelcoming and frenetic. In comparison, my 45-minute hop up to the West End on the reliably speedy number 3 bus seems like unimaginable luxury, although I suppose I might tire of it eventually, and since my destination is now only 4.5 miles away my average speed of 6mph could probably be improved upon, unless I’ve got the maths wrong, which no doubt I have.
Whatever, the point is that once I get to WC2 I am in WC2, which is a place of surprise and adventure. It’s an area of London I’ve known for as long as I can remember – what Londoner hasn’t? – but being there daily, and relying on it for my everyday chores and routines and treats, is something else entirely. I have learned which sandwich shops always use fresh bread and don’t charge obscene tourist prices (naturally, I’m not telling you which they are), and I’ve found a friendly and charming woman called Rita who will do my eyebrows, which are terrifying to behold in their natural state and need a firm hand, and I am on nodding terms with an elderly man who lives in the flats that overlook the open-air pool on Endell Street and spends his days in the café where I go for lunch after I’ve been swimming. Suddenly, in myriad small but miraculous ways, this corner of the city belongs to me.
And I love it. Tucked away between Leicester Square and Covent Garden are more shops, galleries and restaurants than I ever expect to have time to investigate. I could eat somewhere different every day. I have read the spines of a tiny percentage of the books for sale in the secondhand shops along Charing Cross Road and already found fifty books I want to buy, although so far I have limited myself to an Agatha Christie and the Observer’s Book Of Weather. I have discovered a gothic church I’d never seen before, two proper sweet shops, the Equity headquarters and a part of Neal’s Yard I never knew was there. And I haven’t even started yet.
But back to that commute. As I mentioned, 45 minutes for a journey of four and a half miles is not, in the scheme of things, an impressive rate of motion. But I’m coming from a commute that lasted 75 minutes and involved a walk, a tube, a change, another tube and a walk, or, if I wasn’t in a hurry, a shorter walk, a train, a change, a tube and a longer walk. Either way, the journey was crowded and unpleasant. So relatively speaking, my new journey is a breeze.
I think it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of relativity when it comes to health, wealth and happiness. I had a horrible commute for eighteen months, so this one makes me happy. If you’re ill, getting better makes you happy. If you’d given me £50 when I was a student you’d have made me happy. Now I’d just think “fine, that’ll go towards this month’s service charge”.
All of which gives me great hopes for the future, because the longer the beloved and I share a flat that’s barely big enough for one, and a bed that was never designed for two, the happier we’ll be when we get to live somewhere that’s properly big enough for a couple and has a BATH. I hope I never get everything I’ve always dreamed of, so I can always gleefully anticipate the day when I do.