I Left London, Moved Home & Started Questioning Everything

I left home at 19 so by 2020, a decade later, aged 29, I considered myself completely – and proudly – independent. The first in my family to go to university, I prided myself on paying my way, working from the age of 12 to get to the city I’d always wanted to be in: London.
Sure, I hadn’t landed exactly where I wanted career-wise, I’d probably never be able to buy a house in the city and it took three modes of transport to get to a job that made me unhappy, but at least I had my independence. Then the pandemic hit. I’d just spent two weeks signed off work and the thought of spending another fortnight in my too-small southeast London flat – the naivety of thinking a global pandemic which has ravaged the world would blow over in a matter of weeks! – filled me with anxiety. Given the green light from work, I convinced my boyfriend that we should spend a couple of weeks at my mum’s place in Devon. 
I wasn't alone. Research from Finder notes that 6.2 million Brits moved back in with their parents due to the pandemic, although it suggests that figure might be closer to 10.5 million. COVID-19 wasn't the only reason for the exodus; in 2016, the Office for National Statistics reported a record number of 20 to 34-year-olds living at home, in part due to rising rents and prohibitively expensive house prices. Acutely aware of both, I relished my rare situation: living in a rent-controlled flat in a sought-after part of the city. It’s a testament to the lack of decent housing that I continued to pay my rent when I wasn’t living there, along with millions of other Brits who fled their rentals. Collectively we spent an estimated £2.9 billion on rent for empty homes during those first three months of lockdown. Having a place in London – even one I didn’t live in – signified that I was still chasing career success, even though I’d long ago become disillusioned with the pursuit. 

When I did go back to London in July, I couldn't close the distance between the life my younger self had longed for and the one that was waiting for me on my return.

Bumping into old school friends, I’d shoehorn into the conversation that I was only home temporarily. I hadn’t 'given up' and moved back for good. As this wasn’t how I viewed their lives, I couldn’t understand why I equated urban life with independence. Some time during furlough, I gave up this ruse. Trapped in my teenage room, surrounded by the debris of my nascent ambition – stacks of magazines I thought I’d be writing for by now – I pondered how far I’d landed from my goals. Without the relentless pace of London – the multi-hour commutes and endless distractions – I realised that the lifestyle I was mourning hadn’t been the one I’d aspired to in the first place.
When I did go back to London in July with my boyfriend, having spent just shy of £5k in rent and bills on somewhere we weren't even living, I celebrated with showy posts captioned: "I’m back." But I couldn’t close the distance between the life my younger self had longed for and the one that was waiting for me on my return.
The city in a state of limbo, void of after-work drinks and weekends spent wandering around galleries, offered more time for reflection. Unable to have people over, the hideous red lino in my kitchen was no longer a surface on which my mates could casually spill their drinks, safe in the knowledge it had been fucked long ago; it was an ugly reminder that my home was an identikit flat in a block owned by a business that didn’t care to replace the torn flooring.
Bristling at the wasted rent, our home-for-hire increasingly felt like a scam. The busted hob, the sleazy strip lighting, shovelling pounds into an electricity box which coughed up cards that wouldn’t turn the lights back on – why were we paying a premium to live in a place not fit for purpose in a city stripped of its bounty? As our neighbours, a Filipino family who'd lived in the building for 14 years, packed their lives into a van in the car park I’d spent five years waiting to get a permit for, we decided to move back to Devon indefinitely.
Twelve days after we bundled back to Mum’s, I turned 30 in the house where I’d celebrated becoming a teenager with a sleepover and Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls in Love board game. It wouldn’t be the only time I’d feel the ghost of my teenage self. After a decade of peddling a narrative of independence, I was in a living situation that mirrored adolescence. I've been by turns the child and the parent, scolding my mum for not washing her hands as soon as she gets in – there’s a pandemic! – and falling into old habits like procrastination. In London, I would have chalked putting off writing this article up to an instinct for knowing when I’m ready to write but at home I feel like I’m skiving GCSE prep, shielding my screen so no one can see I’m on Bebo, not BBC Bitesize. Except now it's Instagram or ASOS.

Living through the last year without a permanent base has made me focus on building a life less defined by what I do or where I live.

Back at home, the self-assuredness that comes with living on your terms has been replaced by a parent/child dynamic whereby I find myself justifying my 'obsessive' use of garlic, which, apparently, makes my mum feel like she lives in a commune (a reference I don’t entirely understand yet, which is surely symptomatic of larger issues neither of us wants to confront while we’re confined in such close quarters).
From everyday squabbles to life-changing decisions, I’ve felt the tug of this dynamic. Looping my arm through my mum’s as we did on the way to school, I drag her along to house viewings, furiously asking what she thinks and shoving property brochures under her nose like an A+ school report. Despite independently navigating London’s murky housing market, I’ve relied on my parents' opinions even though neither of them has any recent experience. I had accepted being unable to get on the property ladder in London but buying back home someday had always felt achievable, given the dramatically lower prices. Thanks to a 7.5% increase in UK house prices, however, my plans have been derailed. A surge in second homeowners and urbanites like myself craving a different way of life has made prices in North Devon soar and demand hugely outweighs supply. The money we’re saving on rent is being sucked up by the 3.74% boom in the area’s house prices. There's a twisted irony here, I'm sure.
Living through the last year without a permanent base has made me focus on building a life less defined by what I do – at least in terms of a traditional nine-to-five – or where I live. A life that makes room for shifts in plans and priorities, rather than ploughing unquestioningly towards teenage or twentysomething goals. With all my belongings in a storage container, I’m free of the clutter that sketches an outline of a person, leaving me to add colour. I don’t want my identity to be restricted to the place I work or the city I live in and I’m focusing on the idea that home can be a concept as well as a physical place, which may be the ultimate millennial self-trickery to sweeten the pill of being unable to buy. Away from the competitive, career-driven environment of the city, I feel freer to pursue other interests.
A brief dalliance with drawing has shown that those interests don't always stick but a year of being furloughed on and off has forced me to cultivate an experimental attitude that mirrors my teenage self, pursuing interests for interests' sake before I felt pressured to turn every hobby into a hustle. Not having to pay London rent has been a huge privilege – and one I’m aware too few have – but it shouldn’t have taken the disaster of COVID-19 to realise that the life I’d been furiously pursuing had stopped serving me.

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