WHAT LONDON IS REALLY LIKE IN YOUR 20S
Sex, drugs and spice racks: Natalie Hughes reflects on 20-something London life.
This article was originally published on Refinery29.
Chaka Khan once said, "When I was in my 20s, it felt like I was riding wild horses, and I was hoping I didn't go over a cliff." I feel the same way, except I'm riding the Northern Line and hoping there isn't signal failure on a Sunday.
London is both wonderful and brutal to its 20-something inhabitants, who navigate the overpriced pop-ups, Tinder disappointments, and decreasingly menial work tasks with a specific kind of stoicism. While the online version of my life is filled with VSCO-edited images of breakfast, overexposed selfies with a glamorous location enabled, and endless trips to Columbia Road flower market, the reality involves a disturbing reliance on the Domino's Pizza app, not wearing trousers, and existential crises about being a bad future mother after killing a supposedly invincible succulent plant.
With three years to go until my 30th birthday, I figure there's no time like the present to reflect on the last seven years, and, if nothing else, offer up a few shared experiences. 'Cause those are the things that make us all feel a little less horribly, inconsolably alone — even when we reach the age where buying a cat, a spice rack, and orthopedic insoles seem like viable options.
My London clubbing experiences have ranged from the decadent (sashaying across The Box's illustrious stage — and then falling off — in a ribboned Alexander Wang gown to celebrate my 25th birthday), to the cringeworthy (my 21-year-old self thought the bottle sparklers in Maddox defined glamour), to the downright divey (Mother Bar/333 circa 2008...need I say more?). And, I don't think I'm the only one who has ambled optimistically and unwittingly into Infernos and snogged someone called Simon whose signature dance move is an air punch. We've all made that mistake once. Okay, twice.
These days, I have a few tried and tested favourites in which to get my drink on. I'd happily spend every Saturday night nestled in the smoking area of The Haggerston, guzzling house wine and ogling bearded beauties. When pay day comes, and I get the urge to spend all my money while screaming "make it rain" until I am poor again, my bars of choice are The Punch Room, Worship Street Whistling Shop, and Call Me Mr Lucky. But, I'd rather stay in with the Domino's "Home Alone" deal (yup, it exists, and it's beautiful) and those under-eye cooling patch thingies.
They say familiarity breeds contempt. I'd say what breeds contempt is living with someone who drinks milk straight from the carton, has loud sex in the early hours of a Tuesday morning, and abides by the saying "If it's yellow, let it mellow" (trust me, nothing is harder to scrub off than hours-old piss residue). I could write a whole feature on flatsharing, a necessity when you're young, and living in London on 16K.
Disclaimer: I’ve been lucky enough to live alone for most of my 20s. I managed to find a ridiculous deal on rent due to the fact my flat is located atop a set of narrow, nosebleed stairs, has rotten window sills and occasionally unsavoury neighbours (I once witnessed a man receiving a blowjob outside my door). Despite this, I know the perils of flatsharing both from my university days and friends' stories. There are the usual tales — passive aggressive emails exchanged over a foundation-stained towel, the politics of communal spices, and notes typed in Comic Sans saying stuff like, "Dishes are like boyfriends, your flatmate shouldn't be doing yours :)." There are, believe it or not, worse sights than a sink full of unwashed dishes; my friend B got home to find her roommate at it in the kitchen with a man she'd met in the kebab shop (and I thought the worst thing you could pick up was salmonella).
Of course, you have to find the flat and flatmates first, which is a challenge in itself. There are the adverts that read "cosy" (a shed), "split-level" (bedsit), and "loft conversion" (attic). And, then, THEN, there are the potentially stabby creepers that an ill-fated 'spare room' search can unearth. One friend showed up to a viewing at a flat lit by approximately 3,000 tea lights (she said it was like the Tooting version of Eyes Wide Shut). She was then invited to test out how "bouncy" the bed was before being shown a balcony full of cages of pigeons.
But, of course, flatsharing can also be great. There are the joys of house pranks, massive parties, and those all-important shared bills. I'm just a bitter 27-year-old with her own unshared spice rack and a Netflix "recently watched" queue that I'll never let you see.
It's not just the tube that suffers signal failures. A guy I'd been seeing who asked me if I wanted kids on our second date subsequently claimed he had no idea why I assumed he wanted a relationship. This brings me to the much-talked-about topic of Tinder, which is where I met said commitment-phobe. It's hard to meet men in London, especially if, like me, you suffer from Bitchy Resting Face. Of course, there is the "get drunk enough to make eyes at someone in a bar or club" tactic, but this has never proved particularly fruitful. The last man I met this way turned out to be a 34-year-old father of two whose married mate tried to pull my friend.
I’m not saying that Tinder has offered up a wealth of eligible bachelors, but it does open up the lines of communication with someone you may be otherwise too shy to approach IRL. If you're serious about finding Prince Charming, you're gonna have to do some serious swiping. And, once you've set up a date, here come the crazies. I dated one such treasure, whose opening date line was to list all of the "mega cool props" he'd bought from eBay for Burning Man. Don't get me wrong, the mention of Burning Man piqued my interest, but the chainmail vest and "horn belt — just like the one in Game of Thrones!" proved to be a surefire bonekill.
In addition to the perennially single, prolifically dating 20-somethings, there are the smug-marrieds and the smug-affianceds, who couple off with increasing frequency as the late 20s hit. They litter our social media feeds with post-sex selfies and engagement ring pics, usually hashtagged with the dreaded #heputaringonit or worse, #theboydidgood. If I ever get engaged and feel a need to Instagram it, I hope I caption it with something like, "Shit, a diamond! I'm not going to be alone forever! You might not be so lucky, suckers! Be happy for me!" Also, there is a special place in hell reserved for those that say "hubbie."
Anyone who has lived in London for any length of time knows never to go shopping on Oxford Street. On a Saturday. Especially when it's raining, unless you have a desire to get your eye poked out by a tourist's umbrella. It's far better to get up early, but let's face it, with hangovers getting worse as we push 30, that rarely happens. So, I like to resort to a little thing called online shopping, the guilt of which can be washed away with a few glasses of wine. That's how you do guilt-free shopping, kids! Of course, then you're soberly reminded of how much you spent when the package shows up. But, on the other hand, there’s the GLEE of receiving a package, and how HOT you look in your purchase, and the NEWNESS, oh, the newness. And, failing all of that, there’s always more wine to dull the self-loathing.
At 27, I feel as though I should be extolling the virtues of a carefully honed capsule wardrobe filled with "investment pieces," and certainly, some of my more sensible friends do so. They also have pension plans, savings, and homemade almond milk. I prefer to add to my buckling wardrobe with pink fluffy sequined things that don't go with anything. I recently had to give myself a stern talking to after nearly leaving the house in mom jeans, a cropped top, flatforms, and a beanie. And, I'm often inclined to rationalise utterly crazy purchases, the most recent being a £50 hair texturising spray I was CONVINCED would make my life better. (It did.) So, I'm probably not the best person to advise on savvy shopping. I will say one thing: I do spend proportionately more time than I did in my early 20s trawling eBay for furniture. And, candles. And, room sprays. I hate what I've become.
Let's hear it for London's 20-somethings! We spent most of this decade climbing the corporate ladder while in a semi-permanent state of hangover, and I, for one, am proud of us. By your late 20s, you've probably received a couple of promotions. You aren't on the breadline anymore. And, all the while having to deal with weird office rules (one time, non-white mugs were banished from my work kitchen and there was outrage), learn weird and useless corporate jargon (I'd never had a "breakout meeting" or "reached out" to someone before entering the world of 9 to 5), and inappropriate office crushes (I once pulled the cable from my computer so I could elicit a visit from the alright-looking IT boy). My experience so far has taught me what's not appropriate in the workplace: saying the F word, wearing leather shorts, and consuming a pack of Minstrels without sharing them. Actually, scratch that. I'm freelance, so I can do all of these things with no shame. Fuck yeah.
Before I went freelance, I had visions of waking up at 6 a.m., donning some kind of '60s loungewear, marabou mules, and lipstick, and leisurely writing a feature in the reclining position, before breaking for a healthy, homemade lunch. In reality, you can find me frantically bashing the keys on my MacBook in a baggy T-shirt and no trousers, hair strewn atop my head in a greasy ball, and eating whatever's on-hand to sustain energy. (This morning I had banoffee pie for breakfast.)
At the age of 27, I can say that it's my select group of awesome friends who make down days in the city bearable. Collectively, we've weathered years of underpaid jobs, dated approximately 67% of London's finest wankers, and spent too much money on bags/booze/takeaway coffees while bemoaning the fact we'll never be able to buy a house — and, come out the other side relatively unscathed and marginally better paid. I met one of my most treasured pals when we were both interning in the fashion cupboard of a magazine, desk-less and disproportionately eager. Now, she's a big-shot journalist who can talk about South East Asian political systems and why the latest Tinder boy hasn't called with equal aplomb.
When consulted on the topic of friendship in one's 20s, the aforementioned friend described the process as "collecting, grouping, and curating." My early-20s mantra was, "the more, the merrier," unable to distinguish between "party pals" and those who bring Haribo and wine when you're bleary-eyed, post breakup. My mid-20s brought more clarity. I'd left what a lot of people considered a dream job in fashion to go freelance, and, having exited a world of invites to seemingly glamorous events and far-flung fashion shows, lost the interest of a few acquaintances I'd acquired along the way. Luckily, as we approach our late-20s, we become less afraid to let go of those my mum likes to call "energy suckers," because, well, we've got bigger problems — like the onset of back fat.