I am peering through the slatted blinds at the front of my first floor flat. Outside, in the dark rainy street, there is a man shouting the word ‘wanker’ at the top of his voice. Over and over and over again. Shaven headed, wild eyed and drunk, he staggers about in little circles, flailing his arms at what I suppose is an imagined adversary. Soon, my pregnant wife will arrive home and have to confront him on her way to our front door. I suppose I should really go downstairs and ask him to move on. Or at least pop my head out the window and politely enquire what the matter is. And I would, if it wasn’t for the rain, the cold and my complete cowardice. So I just continue to peer at him with cautious fascination. And as I peer I think to myself: ‘Is London really such a great place to raise a child?’
‘He probably isn’t directing his abuse at me,’ I reason inside my brain. ‘In fact, he seems to be directing it at a lamppost. Perhaps it displeased him by getting in his way. He’s right, that lamppost is a wanker. Either way, he probably poses no threat to me or my pregnant wife. Probably.’
Later, once the madman has moved along of his own accord and my wife is home safely, I lie awake in bed thinking about the area we live in. Sure it’s trendy, reassuringly overpriced and awash with poncey organic delicatessens. But it is also dangerous and dirty and occupied by men who shout expletives in the street late at night. The pavements are dotted with yellow murder enquiry signs. I used to quite like the frisson of edge they lent the place; now my mindset is changing. Perhaps this grottily chic urban nightmare is not the ideal place for a child to grow up. All the things that used to fuel my sense of cool, metropolitan self-satisfaction (crack whores, knife-gangs, men who swear at lampposts) are suddenly fuelling my sense of parental anxiety.
‘Perhaps we should move to the country,’ I tell my wife the next morning while surfing frantically over the Cotswolds section of a property search website. ‘We would have a five bedroom house with a bloody great field out back for the same price as this shithole!’ I beam enthusiastically. I gaze at the pretty thumbnail images of thatched roofs and apple trees. I dream of my child being raised in the sort of rural fantasy I read about in AA Milne and Enid Blyton books when I was a kid: long happy days spent scrumping, rabbit chasing, stick fighting, frog torturing, and goat killing. Ah, the simple pleasures of the juvenile bumpkin. Certainly, a childhood in the sticks always seemed to promise more exciting opportunities than those presented by my own upbringing on a dingy Brentford estate, where cigarette smoking, shoplifting and casual arson were pretty much the only leisure pursuits on offer.
My wife peers over my shoulder at the website. ‘Are you mental?’ she asks. ‘We’re in the greatest city in the world and you want to ditch it for the sticks? You’ll be an alcoholic within three months, I’ll be hooked on Valium within six and the kid will grow up talking like someone out of Lord Of The Rings.’ She’s right of course. Weekends in the country might seem okay, but spend more than a month there and you start going stir-crazy and imbibing their strange rural attitudes. Before you know it, you’re on the blower to the police every five minutes reporting ‘a man of suspected foreign extraction’ for wandering through the village. My upbringing in the city might have made me bored, scared and miserable but at least I was broad minded, tolerant and liberal with it.
So we end up compromising. We move to a part of London that has more trees than yellow murder signs but where there’s a bit more for a kid to do than torture defenseless animals and get drunk on scrumpy. It’s twenty minutes from the west end but, if you squint (or drink enough gin) it can sometimes feel like you’re living in a proper little village. There is a farmer’s market and a green and load of pointless trinket shops that close at four in the afternoon.
And now my daughter is two years old. She loves the ducks on the pond, the boats on the river and swings in the park. She’s living a rural dream in the middle of town. And if she wants to experiment with urban pleasures like fags, arson and shop lifting when she’s a bit older, then she can. I might not approve, but it’s nice to know that we live in a city where she has those options.
Sam Delaney’s new book, Night of the Living Dad – Confessions of a Shabby Father is published by John Murray.