Neighbourhood watching


It would be a spectacular disappointment if I’d allowed myself expectations. I’ve lived through enough UK summers, though, to have formulated none at all. And because I’ve still only been back a year, I haven’t really minded the more or less total failure of summer to appear. It’s late July before I go to work barelegged for the first time. By mid August my shoulders still haven’t seen the sun and my arms are the dusty shade of pale usually reserved for white people’s buttocks. When the sun does emerge – in one of the two or three random heatwaves that occur every summer, when a rare wind change sends temperatures spiking into the 30s – the city is suddenly too hot to be anywhere but the shade.

On those days, dust blown north from the Sahara hangs in the heat haze and the streets around Camden are rich with the scent of hot concrete, incense and fried food, baked-on piss and Friday-night puke. People cram onto the pavements clutching glasses, pale spilling flesh exposed, backs seared with the scorched negatives of weekend bikinis and bra straps. Closer to home the air is heavy with nostalgia: the mossy tang of concrete in shady suburban corners, the stink of privet and something sharp and feral I can’t identify; the flavours of last summer when I was fresh off the plane and all my senses were in overdrive.

After a heatwave comes warm rain, which agitates the dirt into a familiar gritty sludge. I barely achieve my first between-the-toes jandal callous of the season before we’re back to dreary weeks of grey and 20 degrees. The temperature is well below that in the middle of Regents Park, where Hapless, never a man to relish physical hardship, hunches miserably three times a week for Firstborn’s pitifully – mercifully – short English cricket season. A week after the summer solstice, with the sun still well above the horizon, we’re shivering on the boundary in scarves and hoods and a windchill of 13.

Most summer days, though, are warm enough to open the windows, which this side of Tufnell Park Road admit a different cocktail of sounds and smells. Warrender Road is more cigarettes than barbecues, as Mrs Marlboro next door hacks and hoicks her way through her first and last fags of the day. On the other side of us an opera singer gargles her way up and down her scales and someone’s radio plays Tina Turner and Split Enz very early in the morning.

Across the road the full cast of Shameless appears to occupy a single terraced house. We ogle behind our kitchen blinds as half a dozen kids and adults of all ages traipse up and down the front steps in wifebeater vests and mirrored aviators, or denim jackets and high heels, or in the case of one adolescent son, the most extraordinary tracksuit I’ve ever seen: skintight and dropped-crotch, in a finely checked grey velour. Blended or slipped-generation, it’s far from clear who’s offspring and who’s parent or both, the daughters more or less indistinguishable from the matriarch in looks, dress and swagger.

All this intrigue, right from our breakfast bar. One Sunday evening eight fire engines arrive and evacuate the care home diagonally opposite us. One Tuesday morning a police van swings in and stops a metre from our window, yielding up a squad of helmeted military policemen in full protective kit, carrying a battering ram and fire extinguisher. They march in silent rubber-booted formation round the corner, break down the door of the flat four doors away and tramp inside. Number Two Son and I crane avidly but an hour later everyone’s still in there. Apart from the arrival of two plain-clothes detectives and the posting of a bored dude holding his helmet and texting at the front door, nothing visible happens before we have to leave for the day. There’s no explanation on Twitter or in the local news: just another day in Upper Holloway.

For us it’s the most excitement we’ve had in the neighbourhood since the previous day, when NTS came in from taking out the rubbish waving a page from a hardcore porn mag, prompting an unexpectedly detailed anatomy lesson at breakfast and a porn debrief all the way to the tube. (“Someone will probably show you video pornography on their phone one day and you’ll have to decide what to do about it.” “Oh yeah, Nathan made me watch porn all the time. That’s why I broke up with him as a friend.” “Oh! Okay! So, ah… what sort of thing did you see?” “Oh, loads and loads of people all in a room having sex… and some animals… and some other stuff. And they made it look really realistic.”)

My workload ramps up, just as the six-week school summer holidays arrive to disturb the delicate equilibrium again. The jobs come thick and fast, though much of it involves undercharging for the fun of working with the lovely WorkLife start-ups. I shovel money at babysitters, do a couple of 1am finishes for a New Zealand client. The lovely, increasingly unreliable Jolie gives a month’s notice – her uni career has turned to custard and she’s moving back to Bournemouth – but Theo the Bulgarian resurfaces to become the boys’ first-equal favourite manny. I’ll be high and dry come September, but in the meantime there’s a week in Barcelona to look forward to, and I’ll deal with the next nanny crisis after that.

The reality of our last six – no, five – no, four – months in London starts to bite. The list of must-do-before-we-leaves is longer than the number of remaining weeks. We work gently on the boys to change their minds, but the promises of new puppies, full-size cricket bats, club rugby, tennis lessons and sailing “when we get back to New Zealand” have too firmly taken root.

“I love London,” I say to Firstborn wistfully, cycling across Waterloo Bridge, Westminster to the left of us, St Paul’s to the right.

He knows what I mean. “But don’t you love Auckland too?”

“Yes,” I say. “But. But… I love Auckland like a husband. And I love London like a lover.”

Silence. Pedalling.

“If I had to choose one city forever it would be Auckland,” I say. “But London’s so sexy and fun…”


“Not literally, obviously. Maybe I love Auckland like family and I love London like a husband?”

Okay. Shut up, Mum.”

Another round of birthdays means we’re now officially the parents of tweenies, though typically precocious Firstborn is physically and socially more like a teenager every day, from the acne to the filthy Whatsapp chats and Skype hangouts with his new 13- and 15-year-old mates.

Rites of passage we’ve observed this year include Firstborn acquiring his own Oyster card for roaming the city alone, and NTS getting his own set of keys to let himself in before the nanny. Now that the four of us can end up in four different places in the city with no home landline, Hapless and I upgrade our phones and bequeath our old ones to the boys. Suddenly we’re a four-iPhone family, a radical shift for us as screen-shy parents.

We negotiate the new politics of passcodes and private IDs, download privileges and chargers in bedrooms and parental surveillance. We’ve so far resisted the idea of content filters, though there is clearly occasional cause to entertain the idea.

“What’s a redneck cousin-fucker?” asks NTS over dinner one night. Firstborn has been showing him YouTube clips of their favourite stand-up comedian.

“Well,” I say. “In the southern states of the US they didn’t used to have sunblock…”

So far I haven’t got round to content controls, my probably misguided instinct being to err on the side of what’s the worst that can happen. Mostly I’d rather answer which-hole-does-the-wee-come-out/inbred-stereotype questions, and try and equip them with TMI for whatever else they might come across. And Russell Howard is pretty hilarious.

So now we have daily battles about Subway Surfers under the duvet and Clash of Clans before the chores are done and whether or not a pen and paper could ever be an adequate substitute for a device when composing lyrics. (“Jimmy Page somehow managed to write Stairway to Heaven without a smartphone.” “You don’t understaaaaand! It’s not the saaaame!”)

But here’s another first for me: the peculiarly warm feeling when you log into Find my iPhone and there they all are, four little gently pulsing devices, all nestled together 0 miles away. And knowing there’ll be a few more years of that yet, whatever the location might be.

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