My first journey to Tottenham Court Road was a good few years ago now, when it was smaller and cramped and the tiles were grimy and beautiful. I was just a visitor then, fascinated by the network I hadn’t yet learned to navigate. It’s huge now, gleaming white and spacious. I liked it better before.
I take a detour today. I could have walked straight along Oxford Street when I surfaced, but the scenic route beckons. Significant parts of my life have occurred around here, and I know it well. Soho is one of the few places in London that I can navigate internally (most of the time), knowing instinctively which corners to turn.
I pass Portland House, on Greek Street. An unfinished facade that has remained the same for as long as I can remember, in stark contrast to Charing Cross Road behind, which seems to change every week. I think about my old workplace in great Portland Street, and the chaos surrounding my life at the time. I feel lighter now.
I stop briefly for a coffee at Milkbar, and I take it with me along the alleyway opposite, towards Soho Square, just as my partner and I did on our first date. We sat on the grass in the sun and melted into each other. I was hungover. It started raining, and we ran back to the cover of Milkbar, giddy and wet. A week or so later I would lay on the grass in Soho Square alone, reading the SCUM Manifesto while I waited for the man who would, later that day, accidentally tell me he loved me.
A man in grubby overalls stares at me with not a shred of shame as I settle in the sunniest, quietest bench that happens to be adjacent to his. Londoners fall into two categories; the avoidant and the seeking. Sometimes we can be both, but that’s a Venn diagram for another time.
As I write the first draft of this on my phone with the sun on my skin, my partner sends me a picture we took of us on the train a couple of days ago, on our first trip away together. I think about the things that led me here, to London, to Soho, to my life now. I think about how good it feels to be making something again, to feel the rush of excitement that ideas bring. I feel very lucky to have even the tiny bit of space I have today to wander around London navel-gazing when my life was, for the most part, a brutal exercise in survival.
I move on. I leave the enclave of Soho to make my way towards Oxford Circus through Carnaby and Argyll. I find myself longing to turn back. It would be tacky to say that back there, in the heart of Soho, is where my own heart lies.
Having said that, the route up to the cacophony of Oxford Street has its own charm. The streets between Broadwick Street and Carnaby genuinely feel like an in-between space, not quite forgotten but maybe unfinished. An enjoyable rarity in an area so brutalised by the land-grab of luxury housing and corporate media. Graffiti, both state-sanctioned and dissenting, is everywhere.
When I first told my partner about this project, I had planned to start somewhere new, some far flung corner of London that I had never laid eyes on. He suggested I do the opposite, start somewhere I knew well, where my mind would be free from the stresses of navigating and constant awareness, allowing me to see more. To feel more.
This path through Soho, to my favourite coffee shop, to the sunny bench in the Square felt too familiar to be all that interesting. But what I feel as my feet instinctively avoid the potholes and navigate the unevenness of Manette Street is the absolute joy of knowing. Routine and contentment are in tandem dirty words and holy grails in a city like London. Those things are overlooked in favour of the new and the fresh. The first flushes of love and connection are coveted over the solidity and safety of something more well-travelled. I realise that excitement and newness is everywhere, and especially in the well trodden paths. I know that I am exactly where I want to be.