Image by Ilya Grigorik (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
I lay awake last night listening to the incessant thumping and bed-squeaking of my upstairs neighbour, increasing in frequency, followed by two groans of relief. I have become unwillingly familiar with this nightly performance. It is just one of the dull moans of the pipes or the squeal of sirens in the soundscape of my North London flat. I have also become familiar with my upstairs neighbour’s other routines. I know she does her laundry on a Thursday afternoon, because she slams her drawers as she puts it away. I assume she drinks, because her door shuts later and louder some nights. The girl who lives above me is someone deeply familiar. I know her routes and the pitter patter of her footsteps. But it strikes me, I do not know her name, or what she looks like. I could pass her in the street, smile at her on the tube, go to reach for the same loaf of bread in the supermarket, and be none the wiser. An anonymous celebrity. The face we do not know, but we understand so intimately. I find that the more people I know, the more startlingly blurred the line between known and unknown becomes.
Since moving to London, I’ve become obsessed with this idea of urban identity and the polarity of it. I grew up in a tiny village in the North West, a place unknown to most of the world, and the people in it remain relatively anonymous too. Within this Austen-esque sphere, everyone knows everything about everyone. You can’t so much as get out your gate without being known, perceived, or judged by others. When I moved to London, I met more people than I have ever known in the first week; never mind those who I passed on the street and shared buses and tubes with, breathing the same air and stumbling onto each other, unconsciously intimate. I felt like I was going viral in real life, an antiquarian ghost of fame. But I had also never felt so invisible.
9.6 million people live in London. It’s impossible to know all of them. But even thinking about the amount of people you see in one day is dizzying, so it is obvious you don’t remember the face of every one. Maybe you notice ten people a day, and remember two of them by the time you go to bed. How many do you remember by next week? None, probably. The anonymity of this city is the scariest part of it. It is so easy to be lost at sea with so many other fishes. We’ve probably passed actors, murderers, people who have climbed Mount Everest, cancer survivors, people who share your favourite film and even people who could become your soulmate, with absolutely no idea. You are simultaneously known, perceived, studied by so many, but yet still remain so unidentifiable amongst the throngs of others. I can’t decide whether that’s terrifying or absolutely liberating. Maybe it's both.
We all have our personal celebrities. People who unconsciously form a character in our lives, even without speaking to them. People we follow on social media, pass in the hallways, sit next to in lectures. Most of my personal celebrities are on my course. My friends and I give them nicknames; not cruel ones. They are just people who have become familiar to us for some reason or another. I have a sort of morbid fascination with them, despite knowing nothing about them and never speaking to them. Sort of like my upstairs neighbour, and the man with twin toddlers I often see in the corner shop. If I ever spoke to these people, they would grow out of this anonymous celebrity box, but for now, I don’t mind them staying there, in a Shrodinger’s cat like scenario, where I can conceivably believe almost anything about them. I often wonder if I hold this status in anyone else’s life. I wonder about my speculative fake life. I hope I can drive in someone’s fantasy, if not my own reality. It feels strange to be living a parallel and of course, untrue, secret life in other people’s fantasy. It feels like non-consensual escapism, like you’ve been dragged into someone else’s dream.
The vastness of the city is dizzying. But is it a comfort to be in such enormous numbers or is it something disturbing, to be so inundated by others? I like flying under the radar. Falling into step with thousands of other commuters in the thick blanket of feet over the streets. I like the anonymity of fleeting eye contact on the tube. I like not being cat-called. Not noticed enough for cruel words. There’s a safety net of being shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of fellow men. An uncommunicated comradeship. But there’s also the sinister. Everyone hurries past to the homeless on the street. We turn a blind eye to people breaking down and slumping into pavement cracks. People get knocked over and no one seems to bat an eye. There’s this terrible inhumanity, ironic in the metropolitan world. So full, but empty, simultaneously. London is hard faced and stony, so when there is interaction, it feels like the city shrinks, softens, in the palm of your hand. It feels close and intimate. A marriage and a divorce through a fleeting smile at the bus stop.
Living in the city is constant performance. To who, I’m not sure. To the self, perhaps, performing to an auditorium full of people, who neither watch nor listen to our display, engrossed in their own performances. I think it’s a gift, to keep your identity personal, to hold it close and only let those who choose to get to know you see it. You don’t have to share it with people on the street, like you do in small towns. You can be your own, and belong to yourself, close and folded up in your pocket. Like a terrifying little receipt of your own insignificance, or your ticket to freedom everytime you walk down the street. Depends on your perspective.
Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essays Editor