Hannah Is Right In GIRLS: Leaving The City Isn't Quitting
The Debrief: You're not a failure because you want to move out of the city
There were a lot of ways I thought Lena Dunham might carry GIRLS to its final conclusion. An inevitable Hannah Horvath book deal, perhaps? A blurry, crazy love affair with - I don’t know - Ray, since she kind of went there before and he’s the nicest one? But I did not expect GIRLS to wrap in the suburbs. No, never that liminal space young people flee as soon as possible, heading for the bright lights of the nearest metropolis like moths to the urban flame.
Did anyone else watch Goodbye Tour - where a pregnant Hannah had an epiphany that the streets of New York weren’t paved with gold but just, er, human faeces - waiting for the punchline?
'Healthcare and streets without human shit on them are fine,' Hannah would tell Elijah, 'but they’re no New York.' And then, Jessa would suggest they went to a rave in a warehouse and everyone would dance ironically around Hannah’s baby bump. The suburbs! Imagine!
That punchline never came. No, we end up in suburbia. The safe haven of those who can no longer hack city life, viewed by those remaining within the bounds of the beast with scorn. Wasn't it Samuel Johnson who said 'when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life'? Don't we all think this at some point in our lives about the city? Taking no heed, Hannah took her boxes and moved out of the city.
Last January, on a freezing, pitch black morning, my boyfriend and I did the same thing. We packed 18 boxes labelled BOOKS & MISC and our three pieces of furniture and drove away from our zone one flat in a removal van. Straight into a bollard, obviously, because we’d been in London so long that steering wheels were alien to us, but once that was done we were on the road.
We didn’t stop at the edge of zone six, nor did we land in a part of Surrey that’s still kind of London. Instead, we moved to the Wirral, near the North Wales border. It costs me £83 to get to London and back and that’s not even with the ticket that gets you a Snack Pack.
We have three bedrooms, sheep at the end of the road and no matter how many times I enter our postcode into Deliveroo, they still don’t deliver to our address. Uber laughs in our faces as we wait in the pub for an hour and a half for a local taxi that, even though there are only two of us, is inexplicably a mini bus when is comes.
I was as comfortable as an indecisive person can be about making such a huge decision, partly because we’d tested the water with a six-month move to the south of France a few years ago. But still, this time it was for good and those worries that Hannah battles in GIRLS about selling out and bailing on something you've worked your whole life up until this point got to me too.
Because, somewhere in my 12 years in London, leaving had become synonymous with quitting. I was moving half an hour from my parents and I worried that successful people don’t move back to where they’re from. That they stay in London and make it work. They give themselves the best chance for every opportunity there is, from their high-flying career to their expensive sushi.
I’m a freelance journalist, trying to get a book deal for my novel and I’m still ambitious so at first - fearful of being judged - I glossed over my new life when talking to work contacts. I told PRs that I couldn’t make their event without mentioning that that’s because it was 200 miles away. I said I was staying at my parents when I gave out my address for work deliveries as in case people assumed I was a loser who hadn't and couldn't make it.
I told a friend how I approached it and she said: ‘Yeah, I suppose otherwise they’ll write you off’ which tapped into my own panic. Writing isn’t something I do on the side for a laugh; this job is how I pay my bills. I needed to not be ‘written out' of my own story. This is how Elijah responds to Hannah when she tells him she's leaving because it will enable her to provide a better life for her unborn child: he says she's quitting, he implies that she's failed.
Gradually though, I realised that being here didn’t make a tiny difference to my ability to do my job, or to who I was, and the worries were my own paranoia. Is it OTT to say that I think I’d become slightly brainwashed by London?
Because here’s the truth about Life Outside The City: while I knew I’d made a sensible decision I didn’t expect was how quickly it would make me very, very happy. When I was ill recently, my parents arrived with a homemade curry, poppadoms and their own mango chutney from the fridge. My niece can turn up in her pyjamas for impromptu sleepovers. There are - a long-term fantasy of mine - windows in our kitchen and in our bathroom. No longer is it a choice between rented flats that have one or the other.
I go out for dinner just to eat some nice food, not to Instagram it because it’s a restaurant that’s been there for 20 years and will still be there in another 20, so there’s no rush to tell anyone I’ve been. I can walk on the beach or in a field without getting a train for an hour. I feel less competitive; I feel more content.
At first when people I met here asked me where I was from I caveated it with ‘but I was in London for 12 years’ as though that marked me out as special. I’m learning to leave it out now because you know what, no-one cares. To them, London is just another place, not the centre of the universe.
None of this is to say that I am not utterly in love with the city. I was there for a long time and it will forever be the place where I went on bad dates (before a life-changing good date), made my best friends over sharp white wine, lived by myself and made people take turns with cutlery to eat my first ever roast chicken.
I felt that sense of pride in the city’s resilience that every Londoner felt after the recent terrorist attack and I walk differently when I’m there, on a high from the buzz of everything going on around me.
But the idea that it’s the only place? I’m telling you: that’s a myth. We fuel it in one another I think so that people don’t start leaving and ruin the fun. If London’s right for you - and it was for me, for a long time - then stay there. But when or if it’s not, make like Hannah - don’t worry about choosing another option. Because that’s all they are: options, rather than anything approaching defeats or failures.
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