The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset opened London to a northerner

When all you’ve known is Sheffield, a move to London seems like a betrayal. But there’s a song that can show the capital’s human side …

Sheffield in the 1990s and 2000s wasn’t glam. It wasn’t gritty, it wasn’t edgy; it was grey as a warship and it never stopped raining. In my mind, Sheffield was the mouldy brown sludge of Devvy Green, and the decrepit markets where stocky women stood, wearing raincoats, chain-smoking fistfuls of cigarettes. My friends and I would sit huddled in the skate park by the new Starbucks, trying to pretend that we liked smoking, lattes, and skating.

House parties, gigs at the Boardwalk, shouty music, jumping along to Reel Big Fish, Arctic Monkeys – “My sister knows them” – and the sticky, oozing floor of Corp where we’d make eyes at each other in goth makeup and drink Red Bull.

Sheffield’s soundtrack was Wonderwall, or Pulp – Common People was playing on the last day of school – and I was reminded of Human League every time I saw a petrol station near my house.

But then everyone started to leave the north. They turned their backs and bid farewell to the Peak District and curry houses, and became southern traitors. We hated them, those brothers and sisters who had escaped. We looked at them with admiration and disgust. How could they go and join forces with those dirty southerners? (But they were so brave.) And then they came back and their accents had changed, and I was scared to be swallowed up by this place called London.

When my time came to leave, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to wave goodbye to a city that had introduced me to so much. Protest marches across the Peace Gardens, the concept of veganism (at the Blue Moon cafe), paganism (very short-lived), bisexuality, and my first dreams of becoming a writer (sitting starry eyed in Cafe 9 in Nether Edge, watching the owners roll cigarettes while I doodled shit poetry).

Then my dad took me on one of our last drives into the Peak District and he slipped the Kinks into the cassette player.

“Dirty old river, must you keep rolling.” Not so different from Sheffield, then. We had a grimy river, too.

And then Ray Davies talked about being lonely, and taxi lights shining bright in the busy city, and it made me even more apprehensive about this dizzy, busy place. But when Davies said how simple it was that “Terry and Julie” met every Friday night at Waterloo Station, I started to think about all these glamorous couples who met at stations (inevitably wearing 60s clothing against a sepia backdrop).

Nobody met at stations in Sheffield. Mainly because the railway station (at the time) was slightly grungy and if somebody suggested meeting there you’d say: “You what? You mad?”

Years later, Davies said in an interview that Terry and Julie were based on his sister and her boyfriend emigrating to a new world. For me, London was that new world. And although I lacked the 60s outfit, on that drive with my dad I realised that London, even with “millions of people swarming like flies” around the underground, could be my home.

The only slightly depressing side to the song was knowing that being able to gaze upon Waterloo sunset from my window was an unlikely and costly dream, and that I’d have to settle for a Brixton ditch or a Kennington sewer if I wanted a riverside view.

But if London ever gets a bit too crazy, I just put Waterloo Sunset on my iPod and divert my bike towards Waterloo Bridge. Then I remember being in the car with my dad, driving back towards the lights of Sheffield, when Ray Davies helped me to see that I could just about cope with a north/south dual nationality and become a proud northern dirty southerner.


Eleanor Ross

The GuardianTramp

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