A Process of ‘De-Urbanisation’
I failed to get into my desired university. During the last two years of school, I invested my whole being into gaining a place at Cambridge to read Music. I was denied access on all fronts. The college I applied for (I can’t even remember what it was called now) rejected me, but ‘pooled’ me, after which I received an offer from another college, who raised the grade requirements to 2 A*’s and 1 A, as opposed to the other way round. Having got 3 A’s, I obviously could not go. My initial decision was to take a year off and try again, but after 3 or 4 days of disappointment, frustration, agonising and a whole host of other engaging emotions, I realised this would be almost the complete opposite of what was best for me. I was recommended the university of Newcastle by the head of music at my school, but I was sceptical, if only because I had never heard of it. Anyway, I applied through clearing, and they were delighted to have me (which was starting to make sense to me, as 3 A’s is really good, despite what Cambridge would have me believe!). So, I went. Now, before the interesting part, it is necessary to set the scene a little further.
Although I was born in Derbyshire, I lived in London from the age of about 3, with the occasional trip to the countryside for short holidays and visits to our more rural relatives. It would be more than fair to say that I was of that particularly narcissistic school of thought that behaved as if there was no life beyond the M25. The dream was to be in London, living in a large riverside apartment, doing nothing specific but certainly earning lots of money. Now, you may think these were immature adolescent fantasies, and what’s more you may even be right, but I planned this stuff out with an incredible level of detail. I obtained the layouts of the penthouses in the St. George’s Wharf complex in Vauxhall (there is an image below for those who do not know it) and ‘designed’ the dream home, complete with possessions and style but devoid of any substance or meaning. Indeed, my highest ideal of desirable being were the wealth-saturated 30-somethings called Brutus prancing around Mayfair, and I had cultivated a healthy disdain for those less fortunate or fast as me.
Arriving in Newcastle, then, I was stunned by the vibrancy, potential and to be frank, the independence that I found. This place was doing just fine without the interference of the Big Smoke! Further to this, it seemed (and does still more now) so much more relaxed. The Geordie’s have struck a wonderful balance between opportunity and quality of life. The city is teeming with life and activity in all manner of guises, but there is an easy-going lilt in the pace of things that encourages you not to try and sprint. You can’t win a race in which no-one is participating. London, however, forever conscious of the level at which its game is played, whips people up into a frenzied and stressed intentionality that is an institution in itself. The behaviour of most people is almost exclusively orientated towards getting where they need to be to do their job – which, by the way, is not only far more important and worthwhile than everyone else’s, but is beyond their comprehension in these respects. Pavement rage is probably the most apt name for this attitude, and it makes an enemy of all the other impatient travellers, whilst victimising any who cannot ‘keep up’ with this self-evidently justified rat race. I know all of this because I used to participate wholeheartedly in these activities: walking to the train station, queueing for an ATM, going down an elevator, getting on a train, getting off a train…you name it. Now, it could be said that all this was down to my own inherent impatience and intolerance, but I think the prevailing attitude capitalises on these traits that all people have to some degree. Fellow human beings are pitted against each other, and the stench of competition fills the air.
The other key difference between Newcastle and London that has influenced me to be its relationship with the surrounding countryside. Indeed, I would say this has been the more profound facilitator of my de-urbanisation. Since the former is so much smaller in size, and far less nebulous, as well as being situated so close to so many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). There are some very distinct cut-off points where you are definitely no longer in the city, and getting past those points into the soulful, mysterious beauty of the wilder areas of the North East is very easy to do. Below are some pictures of my early forays into these unknown areas. London, on the other hand, seems to go on forever, and whilst around of 62% of it is green space, almost half this is private garden, and the rest (38% of London) is largely engineered parkland. There was a strong sense for me in the Toon (as it is nicknamed by the Geordies) of the proximity of vast swathes of land exulting in their own chaotic innocence, unscathed by the more invasive debauchery of human development and ‘progress’.
This more relaxed way of life, coupled with the sheer accessibility of big open spaces full of trees and grass (as opposed to concrete) had an enormous impact. I came to realise my own unimportance, how inconsequential my comings and goings are in comparison to the broader strokes of time in which mountains and sky operate. It was unbelievably liberating. All around me were opening up experiences of the natural world that stunned me, silenced me and totally humbled me. A corollary of this unexpected, but much-welcomed and needed (in retrospect) process, was that my attachment to material property was loosened. It was clear not only that a lot of possessions are unnecessary in landscapes such as those pictured above, but they are an active burden. When you have to carry everything you own, you realise how little you actually need, and this need becomes ever more overlapping with want. I am by no means saying I have rid myself of all my possessions, I in fact have more than before I went to university, but I have noticed a marked change in my attitude towards them. I appreciate what I have more, not taking it for granted, and not spending so much time thinking about what else I need.
The effect of the change in my environment extended towards my relationships with people as well. Before, I had a relatively egocentric attitude, judging many by my own standards, and operating within a hierarchical, pick-and-choose system of who I would want to spend time with and who I would want to avoid. Now, although I certainly don’t always succeed, I aim to take people as they are, not passing any judgment (lest I be judged), and accepting them on their own terms. Below I have quoted one of my favourite human beings, who has encapsulated this notion perfectly.
When you go out into the woods and you look at the trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You’re too this, or I’m too this”. That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.
It always staggers me to think of how much I have changed over the past three years, and the noticeable differences in quality of life these changes have engendered. There is always the opportunity for further growth, as, being essentially imperfect creatures, we always fall short of our ideals, evade our problems and try to hold on to the passing show of the world. I am in no way complete, but at least I feel that I am aware of this, and have some impetus to do something about it.