How Reading About London Helped Me Overcome Agoraphobia
This complicated city has spurred many authors to analyze it—and their work made me feel less alone
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I once moved to a city that didn’t want me.
As soon as I’d unpacked my belongings, it started doing everything it could to drive me away again. It seemed to accommodate everyone else, but while the city they lived in was warm and friendly, mine was cold and cruel. People walked so closely past me I could feel the air between us move, but this was the only proof I had that we were living in the same place.
This vast collection of infrastructure and people, of course, wasn’t colluding against me at all. The distance between London and myself was really caused by agoraphobia and anxiety, which forced me to spend most of my first six months in London holed up in one room, with a giant window showing me a constant stream of people walking from one place to the next. I’d often make it down the four flights of stairs from the apartment to the street in an attempt to join them, only to flee back up again once my feet had touched the ground.
I forgot what it was like to go grocery shopping, to walk past other people, sit at a desk and work, and be a part of the city’s febrile hum. I came to understand the politician’s way of merging everyone into one and referring to them as one big entity, because I was on the outside of it wondering how I’d ever get back in. And I blamed London for each setback, rather than the imbalances in my brain.
Eventually I did manage to venture outside, though I still struggled with the city for a long time. But I didn’t find my way down the stairs and into a welcoming London just through force of will. I read my way there.
The London that unfolded in front of me on the page provided an easy first step to understanding my surroundings. This is the only place I’ve ever lived that had an entire genre of books dedicated to understanding its intricacies and surviving inside its walls, and I took those books as a guide as I struggled to understand London and my place in it.
Reading about the city made me feel like I was falling back into a half-finished dream — as is often the case when a writer articulates the thoughts you have that were too distant to put into words, and too abstract to be conjured in anyone else’s minds. Other writers’ takes on the city helped me realize I wasn’t alone in feeling shunned, or overstimulated by the city. I was just another Londoner.
The books were about London, but they helped me learn more about myself, and how my own thinking patterns needed to change. London has featured in the lives and works of many of history’s greatest writers, including George Orwell, Dickens, Muriel Spark, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, but the literature dedicated to London says more about the human condition than it ever could about a physical space, because the city is too vast, too fast and too nuanced to act as anything other than a blank canvas onto which we project ourselves.
James Boswell writes in The Life of Samuel Johnson, “I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some one particular pursuit, view it only through that medium… But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.”
One thing I projected onto the city was the morbid curiosity I’d had since I was a child pestering my mother about what happened after we die. London has a constant energy that only slightly dips on a Sunday morning before brunching hours, when a sleepy stillness lingers on its streets. This unbounded vitality felt to me like London was always gesturing towards death, in the same way that being happy tends to make me acutely aware of how much I have to lose.
The city was bursting with reminders of mortality, from its underground tunnels to its disposable pop-up shops, wailing ambulances, roaring planes overhead and the constant stream of thousands of faces, displaying our in-built desire to populate and override the fact we’re all built to expire.
When I first moved here, death plagued every street I walked on — and yet, at the same time, there was too much life at my fingertips for me to know what to do with. But for me, and for any writers who’ve contemplated London’s ability to lure one towards dark thoughts, the constant reminders of impending death, laid out as casually and frequently as lampposts, make for fertile ground for wanting to live a full life outside the confines of four walls.
Necromania is only one aspect of London’s complicated personality. For everyone who lives here, the city is as nuanced as the most complex of people. H. G. Wells wrote in The Rise of Tono-Bungay, “I could fill a book, I think, with a more or less imaginary account of how I came to apprehend London, how first in one aspect and then in another it grew in my mind. Each day my accumulating impressions were added to and qualified and brought into relationship with new ones; they fused inseparably with others that were purely personal and accidental. I find myself with a certain comprehensive perception of London, complete indeed, incurably indistinct in places and yet in some way a whole that began with my first visit and is still being mellowed and enriched.”
One way in which we cope with such a multi-faceted entity is to treat it as if it were a living person. One of the first things I noticed upon moving here was the degree to which Londoners, writers and non-writers alike, compulsively anthropomorphize the city. We treat London as if it were a person with free will, from the ruthlessly ambitious City to the reserved, well-mannered Hampstead, the heavily tattooed, laidback Hackney and the raucous, age-defying Camden.
A popular complaint about London-as-a-person is how rude and impersonal it can feel, but we simultaneously appreciate being able to walk around and feel anonymous, at times when such a state of being is required. In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf wrote about what she called, “The greatest pleasure of town life in winter — rambling the streets of London.” She asked if there was any greater delight than to “leave the straight lines of personality,” and take on the minds and bodies of passers-by.
Many of London’s most celebrated writers are also curious flâneurs, because roaming the city’s streets and exploring it physically is the only way to understand such an expanse. One of its most celebrated living flâneurs, Iain Sinclair, declares an end to London as he knows it in his book, The Last London, where he describes the end of London’s written era, when every stage of the city’s life was captured in time by writers past. Now, he says, London is “wedded to an instant, dominant present tense.” He writes:
In the fugue of London walking, real feet on unreal ground, we have to deal with that sense of groundlessness, striding faster and faster in anticipation of a bigger fall, weaving hard to avoid the committed, heads-down texters and tweeters who seem to be programmed for impact.
Like many other analyses of the city, Sinclair’s words provide pertinent commentary on wider trends. Literature inspired by London’s streets often weaves micro observations with macro metaphors. Every time you go outside, the city drip-feeds scraps of conversations, unnoticed acts of altruism and snippets of people’s lives that can collect to become general diagnoses on mankind, for writers, readers and the rest.
It’s to global London’s detriment that a suited, briefcased banker trampling on a homeless person’s blanket is a sign of capitalism’s failure, that one café serving £4 bowls of cereal in a poor part of town is the sign of gentrification gone awry. This is especially true for a city caught in the world spotlight amid the furor of Brexit, when the city’s every move is being carefully watched.
Sinclair’s declaration of death to written London is a worrying trend, if my own experience is anything to go by. I found comfort in relying on writers’ snapshots in time, their painting of London as a still being — because the very nature of writing about something suggests it was unmoving for long enough for a writer to record it, and for it to be worth doing so. Sinclair alludes to our present tense-obsessed social media times taking over, which, for future newcomers, means that getting to grips with the city will require a whole new level of effort. Taking comfort in the time capsules of Sinclair et al. allowed me to capture London’s heart, rather than trying to keep up with its frenetic cells, which multiply and die off quicker than our own brains’ and bodies’ as we try to understand them.
Since getting to know London by retracing the steps of writers, and understanding my place here by reading about it, the city has found its way into my own writing. After shutting myself out of the city for so long, once I recovered from my anxiety I realized that just exploring the city wasn’t enough. I wanted to get the city deep in my veins, as deep as it seemed to me to be in my favorite writers.
When London became my subject, it took on a different kind of distance than the one I felt when I first moved here. I’ve learned that the only real distance humans face in the modern world is conjured mentally. Technology and travel allow us to stay close to whomever we choose, however far away they are — but the bonds depend on us being a willing participant in the world around us. Our own minds can drive us worlds apart from those standing right in front us, a distance that can’t be closed by a plane journey or Skype call.
It was only when my fog of anxiety lifted that I realised that living here can make you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt before, but that it isn’t a sentient thing with a desire to make life difficult. There are bad people within its boundaries who do do that, of course, but London itself isn’t to blame.
This city is an irresistible plaything for writers, a veritable playground for the human psyche, where Londoners’ true motivations, fears and ambitions have the space to play out and, ultimately, help shape the literature — or disposable tweets and texts — defining London at a place in time.
From the uninitiated to the veteran, Londoners move quicker, consume (in every sense of the word) with abandon, and let bad days show on our faces. We mourn together, worry about rent together, ride underground together, and carry all the weight of the city with us as we walk around. Part of the initiation into London is learning to attune our own characteristics to some of those we project onto the city itself; ambition, resilience, openness, and perhaps a slightly harder exterior, too — because when you can’t beat it, you join it, and when you can’t understand it, you read.