For over half a decade the sweet sound of police sirens sang me to sleep. There was something oddly comforting in the persistent wailing racing along the main road past Finsbury Park. In a perverse way it was a sign everything was normal. This came to mind last week when someone set a fire alarm off in the building opposite and the fire brigade came out at 10pm. Aside from insects and birds, it's only the second time there's been noise past sunset since I departed London.
I left at the start of the year, crossing the Atlantic to the Boston area. Boston isn't a small place. It's a major metropolitan area full of life. Or it would feel full of life if I hadn't have come from London. To compare the two isn't really fair. One is a decently sized, influential national conurbation; the other an international mega-city. If I'd have gone a bit further south to New York I imagine it would all be different, but I didn't and it's very strange.
It's not that I dislike Boston. It has a lot going for it, particularly on a pleasantly warm summer day crossing the Charles with the sun reflecting off the water and up onto the gold dome of the State House. It's just not the frantic, disorderly, overcrowded place I'm used to. It doesn't have a bewildering number of buses blocking up the same street, pavements are actually navigable and it's impossible to get lost in the historic centre because the whole thing can be traversed in a few minutes. There is an Underground but it's not called the Underground and it's normal to wait up to ten minutes for a train. A lot of days there aren't even any clouds in the sky.
Without a grey pall, nothing seems quite right. It's what I've had above me for nearly the entirety of my life. For three decades I was in and around London, but I'm not a Londoner. I'm from somewhere much worse; a Home Counties satellite town - the kind of place that exists only to serve its much larger, much more exciting neighbour. In the case of my hometown, it was where the capital sent its dead, shipped out on train far enough to no longer get in the way, but not so far it would look like they were being callously disposed of.
Eventually I shook off the suburban gloom and moved into a London Borough that in most cities would be far enough out to count as a suburb. I loved my flat in Hackney with its flimsy single-glazed windows, lack of curtains, and a boiler that went kaput with unerring regularity. The proportions were just right. Everything Stateside is wrong, especially the pretty wooden houses. They're too big, like someone's taken a dollhouse for the base model and expanded the scale. What this actually means is houses large enough to live in for many people, but it still doesn't feel quite right.
It's the quietness that really gets me though. It's not that there aren't people around; they just tend to avoid the streets. Go into a shop, or a restaurant, or a bar, or pretty much any building, and it will be reasonably busy. Step outside and it's completely different. I live ten minutes from a major university and even less from a minor one. There aren't even any students making noise. The closest I've come to a disturbance was a lost hipster playing Bob Dylan while he cycled around with corduroy trousers rolled up to his knees.
Boston has its hipsters but not like London. I lived near middle-class Stoke Newington, the kind of place hipsters go to settle down. Every parent buys wooden toys for their kids; all handcrafted by part-time arts students in independent shops that gang together in an enclave to keep out Tesco. It was glorious. There were also kebab shops, a sight sadly missing from my dispiritingly healthy new locale.
Relentless references to the revolutionary past wear thin as well, though as a Redcoat I would say that. I do think Boston's steeped in a little too much history for its own good. As far as America goes, it's an old place indeed, but they jump overboard on the blue plaques. It seems anyone who oiled a creaking door or buffed a window in the days of independence got one. There's even a plaque proclaiming the courage of local citizens for decorating their houses in the style of ancient Egypt. Of all the unnecessary trumpeting of Boston's famous past, that one's a strange barrel to scrape.
Boston is an interesting place, a pretty place, sometimes exciting, and certainly passionate if anyone mentions sport, but it doesn't wear its history with the same casual ease as London. That's a city currently in the sweet spot, at the cultural and economic cutting edge while underscored by a couple of millennia of history. The old mixes beautifully with the new. It's not Rome, a city that stripped of its considerable past glory would be little more than a husk, nor is it some shiny new kid on the block. Right now, while far from perfect, it's the best of both.
The passage of time will either dull these feelings, or intensify them until I turn into a rose-tinted colonial apologist with a shrine to Queen Victoria above the fireplace. We don't have one in our current flat so it will have to go above the oven for now. Or I could attempt to live up to my national stereotype by smiling politely and keeping all unwieldy emotions in check. Deep down though London, you know I miss you.