From Shepherds Bush to Acton, Wimbledon to Wandsworth, and even Hackney, London is sprinkled with New Zealander strongholds, writes Elle Hunt.
I am a little less than halfway through the Hackney Half Marathon when I realise that I haven’t done enough training, and that that was a mistake. Choosing to listen to Louis Theroux’s Desert Island Discs over minimal techno with a fast BPM was also a mistake. But at this point, I realise grimly, the only way out is through. Or by ambulance.
My attention is slipping from Theroux’s deadpan explanation of his pick from the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack to my fast-growing fatigue. To distract myself I start to look fully, frantically into the faces of the crowd cheering from the sidelines. I am surprised to spot someone I know. Is that Nigel?
As soon as I’ve glimpsed him, he’s gone. But the sighting sets me down a rich path of mental inquiry. So is Nigel here in London now? I thought he was still in Auckland, where our mutual friend had introduced us, well, it must have been at least six years ago. At one point, I think, we were Facebook friends. Maybe we still are, unless I culled him. Or he culled me.
I have run nearly a kilometre turning this over in my mind, my leaden legs lifted by these circular thoughts. The route loops back on itself. There’s Nigel again. We make eye contact. I briefly wonder if I am hallucinating.
Then I remember that, no – I’m just in Hackney.
Like any migrant community, New Zealanders in London tend to congregate together in quite specific areas. To quote the sizeable, influential Kiwis in London network, often the unseen hand guiding them all: “For decades our lot have drifted all around West London. Areas like Shepherds Bush, Acton, Hammersmith, Putney, Southfields, Wimbledon, Wandsworth and Clapham are where you’ll find most of us now.” In 2001 a BBC analysis found that 0.7% of the local population of Acton (within the borough of Ealing, west of Charing Cross) was New Zealand-born, making it the area’s fifth-largest migrant population.
Many in these Kiwi enclaves live in small, crowded flats with other Antipodeans – strangers connected through the expat network, united by their being far from home. Often Australians and New Zealanders will flatshare together, their differences put aside to align against the common enemy: London. The same BBC analysis found that six out of the top 10 neighbourhoods with the largest “New Zealand clusters” were also the top neighbourhoods for Australians.
Then, often just as soon as you learn that they are in London, they are gone – their visa up, their money gone, their energy spent. For every “Hey guys, I’m in Acton now!” post, there is another about a “one-way ticket home bought” – vacating a room to be filled, no doubt, by another incoming New Zealander.
The Kiwis in London group’s advice to new arrivals is to “keep an open mind” about where you might live, with “more and more Kiwis branching into East London too”. I see that that is the case whenever I go to Hackney, when I reliably run into New Zealanders I haven’t seen for years. It is like a scene from Dickens: a tale of two cities combined in one, the ghosts of Kiwis past. Nigel was a representative deep cut. A few months earlier I’d been at London Fields and seen the school friend of an ex-, ex-, many times over ex-boyfriend, who I’d last seen at a rooftop party in Auckland around 2010.
Another time I was seated at an outdoor table of a Turkish restaurant, and a woman passed by who, I was pretty sure, I’d lived with briefly in Wellington. But that can’t be Jane, I thought. Jane wasn’t pregnant when I last saw her, seven years ago. That night I spent some time scouring her Facebook profile for clues as to whether she was pregnant and/or in London. Results were inconclusive.
When I haven’t seen someone for years, and in the absence of an expository “life update: I’m moving to London!” post on social media, I am often inclined to second-guess my sightings. In a city of more than 8 million, there’s the statistical unlikelihood of it, for a start. Can that really be Marcus in the corner shop, buying vegetables? Shouldn’t he be asleep, on the other side of the world?
These run-ins have a dreamlike quality, I find, like a peculiarly expat version of “sonder”: the realisation that every stranger you pass on the street are living lives as complex and all-encompassing as your own. When you run into people from your past, thousands of miles removed from what you think of as their context, you are confronted by thoughts of all that has gone on in both your lives since you saw each other last.
At the very least, there was a plane ticket. Maybe a pregnancy. And, in the next hour: a half-marathon. Or a hospitalisation.