When I moved to London in May 1999, I was planning on being there for a very long time. I was about to start a post graduate diploma in English law, which would have led to me qualifying as a barrister within a couple of years. But then Kristy showed up, I spent a summer in the City, and everything changed.
It was during my year of living and writing in Melbourne in 1998 that I’d decided my future lay as a barrister in London. But when I arrived back to Glasgow in April 1999, I was completely broke. I had maxed out every credit card and borrowed money from everyone I knew on my travels. Although the law course didn’t start until September, I decided to go down to London early to make some money, and get set up for a return to University.
Then I got that email from Kristy, saying that she had just bought a flight from Austin to Scotland, and that she was going to come and see me in a couple of weeks. That wasn’t part of my plan. I never think about ‘what could have been’, but I would have some big decisions to make that summer.
More than anything, I was freaking out that a girl I liked was about to fly across the world just to be with me. At the same time, I was riddled with embarrassment about what I had to offer her. We’d talked dreamily in Austin about traveling Europe together, but I couldn’t even afford a train ticket from Barrhead to Glasgow.
In spite of that, I was more optimistic about my future than ever, having finished the screenplay and all that it signified. But I didn’t know what to think about the possibility of joining my future with Kristy’s. I mean, before she came over, I didn’t even know if we were just going to be friends or if this was to be something more. We had only really ‘dated’ for about two weeks in Austin that March.
And as I tried to focus on what these different futures might be, my parents were readying to sell our family house in Barrhead. The house was too big for just the two of them and my mum and dad wanted to move on. I’d lived there from the age of 7 until I was 18. It was the only place I could ever remember calling home. My memories of my brother and that house, that garden, our garden, were inseparable.
But I was moving on too. I was on my way to London, to start a new career. I just didn’t know where Kristy would fit into it all.
She arrived from Austin early on the morning of May 18th, 1999, and I brought her back to the family house. We had some uncomfortable moments with my parents as they tried to figure out whether she needed her own bedroom. I wasn’t even sure either. Then the next day, Kristy and I took the overnight bus from Glasgow down to London. It was the cheapest and nastiest way to make that trip, but I didn’t have any choice.
My initial plan was to mooch for as long as possible off the generosity of my friends in London. Three of the Pump were living together in a large 5 bedroomed house in Tufnell Park, near Highgate and Camden in North London. Stef, Pyob and Jonny were all working their first professional jobs in the City, and they shared the house with two other mates – Teddy (real name Alex), and Buttsy (real name unknown).
The lads had a small basement with a toilet that they used as a laundry room / early morning dump facility, and I’d arranged for me to crash there a while that summer. What the lads didn’t know, until a few hours before I arrived, was that I was bringing a girl from Texas with me.
And it was very much a Lads House. The TV was permanently tuned to Sky Sports, the fridge was full of beer, and the freezer was full of ready meals. Most conversations centered on girls they knew, girls they’d like to know, and girls that they would never meet. These discussions were enriched with colorfully obscene language, and often punctuated with farting. The laundry room had one small window that added no light, a door that didn’t close properly, and an old smelly mattress on the floor. Welcome to London Kristy.
A couple of days after we arrived, we all gathered in the living room to watch the Champions League Final. Manchester United v Bayern Munich from the Nou Camp. None of us were huge Man Utd fans, but we all squeezed onto the couch to cheer on the British team with the Scottish manager. It remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen (YouTube).
Man Utd were 1-0 down after 90 minutes. There were 3 minutes of added time. Their goalkeeper goes up for a corner, there is a big scramble and Sherringham scores. Then one minute later, Beckham swings in another corner and United score again to win 2-1. Me and the lads were all jumping up and down on the couch and the coffee table, hugging and kissing and throwing beer at each other. It was probably the first soccer game Kristy every watched. On top of all the other feelings going through her head, in this bizarre world that I’d brought her into, she must have thought that we were insane.
Before arriving in London, I’d set up a couple of mini-pupilages with barristers. Basically they were short internships for about a week at a time with different Inns of Court where you get to shadow different barristers for the day, and get some experience at the High Court in London.
It was fascinating. Some of the barristers I met were nice and some of them were dicks. But they were all incredibly smart. I knew that I wouldn’t necessarily fit in with them, but I still thought I could do the job.
I remember watching one barrister cross-examine a witness in a contested divorce case. He would ask the witness a series of questions by starting “I put it to you that…”. For example he would say “I put it to you Mr. Smith, that you were there that night and the evidence clearly supports that fact”. To which Mr. Smith would reply “Bur I wasn’t there”, and the barrister would say, “Well I put it to you that you were”. And then he’d swiftly move on to the next question. It was brilliant. I’ve since used that a few times myself actually.
I also made some contacts and joined a legal temp agency in Chancery Lane. Almost immediately they called me up with a job placement. Being completely skint, I took it before they could even tell me the details.
The job was in the town of Bracknell which is about an hour west of London. They needed a team of legal temps to review some documents on behalf of Mowlem Construction. It took about two and a half hours to get there but the good thing was that they paid me from the moment I left the house until I got back. So I got to bill them for 12 hours a day.
And that was my summer in London. I worked there from June 1st until the middle of August.
Every morning I’d set my alarm for 6am and leave the lad’s house in Tufnell Park at 7am. I’d walk to the subway and take the Northern Line down to Waterloo Station, then get on the train to Reading at around 8am. It took an hour to get to Bracknell, and the Mowlem office was another 30 minute walk from the station.
The best thing about the commute was that I was going in the opposite direction to everyone else. It wouldn’t make sense to live in Central London and commute to Bracknell, so every day I would have the whole carriage to myself. I could usually get in a solid 45 minutes of sleep if I wanted. I remember I had an old CD walkman that Craigy had given to me because it didn’t work properly. But I figured out that it would still work if you held it closed and kept it horizontal with the ground.
It probably looked a bit strange, but so long as I held the CD player tightly with two hands right in front of me as I walked, I could listen to albums like ‘The Man Who’ by Travis and ‘13’ by Blur. I had a lot of time to think on those commutes. And I had time to watch other people as they commuted into London too.
Every morning I would usually get on my train at Waterloo a few minutes early as it waited in the station for the clock to tick over to the scheduled departure time. In those few minutes, as I sat there in my empty carriage staring out the window, a commuter train would usually arrive on the other side of the platform, bringing hundreds of workers into London from suburban towns like Frimley or Staines or Aldershot or Teddington.
And unlike my carriage, the arriving train would be crammed full of people. I got to watch as this standing-room only train slowly pulled into the station, and the passengers on board reluctantly put away their newspapers and books.
The train would come to a stop, a dozen doors would open simultaneously, and then like a disturbed ant colony, the occupants would stream out onto the platform, some running ahead, some hanging back, others getting frustrated at not being able to move faster than the throng in front of them.
I don’t know what they were all thinking about in those moments. Maybe they were still thinking about something they had read, or maybe they were starting to think about the work day ahead. Maybe they were thinking about the rest of their commute, or whether they would make it into their office on time. Maybe they were thinking about their families or their kids. Maybe they weren’t thinking about anything. All I know, is that no one looked happy.
Every day for weeks I’d watch this same scene. Different trains would arrive from different towns, but they would be emptied by the same swarm of cheerless faces. And it would depress me. As time went on, I realized that I didn’t want to be one of those people. At least not yet.
I was still only 24 years old. I decided that I wasn’t ready for the rat race. I wasn’t ready to be a commuter. I wasn’t ready to be a lawyer. London can you wait?
Kristy had found a job too, waiting tables in a restaurant in Camden. It meant that several days a week she would be out working when I got home, and I might not see her for days.
But despite working 12 hours a day and living on the floor of a small laundry room with a bunch of single men, our relationship continued to grow. After a while, I think the lads actually quite liked having Kristy around too. And when it came time to figure out what I was going to do next, I decided that it didn’t matter to me what I was doing, or where I was doing it, I just wanted to stay together with her.
One weekend in July we went up to Edinburgh to see some friends. It was Kristy’s first time there and she loved it. We started talking about the idea of moving there, instead of traveling or staying in London.
By that time, I didn’t need to be convinced to leave London. Quite a few of the Pump were still in Edinburgh too, including Nelly, Doc, Craigy, Myles and Richie Rich. So I wrote to City University and deferred my postgraduate course for a year.
By the end of the summer I’d made enough money to pay back all the friends and relatives from whom I’d borrowed. At the same time, a friend of my Mum’s was renting out an apartment in the Grassmarket. It felt like a sign that I had chosen the right path. So Kristy and I left Tufnell Park, the lads reclaimed their laundry room and toilet, and we went up to live in Edinburgh. Three months later we would be married.
Someone recently asked me if I ever think about what would have happened if I’d stayed in London? The answer is no. As I mentioned, very rarely do I think about what might have been. I don’t see the point.
I suppose that if I’d gone to London by myself, then I doubt that I would have moved back to Edinburgh a few months later. And I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have then found my way to New York and back to Austin. But in saying that, I don’t know if I would have made it, or stuck it out as a barrister in London either.
That’s what I mean. There’s no point in thinking about ‘what if’. When it’s time to make a big decision, you try and consider every possible outcome, good and bad. Then you make your decision and you don’t look back. That’s what I did. The train is only going in one direction.