Arlo Parks shares her vision of London

The 18-year-old alternative singer-songwriter pens a poem about England’s capital.

From raves to church­es, accents to ges­tures, E8 to SE22, no Londoner’s sto­ry is the same. In our first series, Audio Sto­ries: Lon­don, we asked indi­vid­u­als from all walks of life to share an account of their city.

Arlo Parks’ take on being a teen in Lon­don is authen­tic – not the glossy, sani­tised ver­sion we see on post­cards. For the alter­na­tive musi­cian and poet, her expe­ri­ences aren’t built on daisy chains and splash­ing about in a blue lake, it’s more kick­ing pink blos­soms” and watch­ing her ex fall into a pond blind drunk” kind of real­ness. That’s what makes a Lon­don­er, right? Tough­ness, resilience and real­ness. At just 18, Parks’ forth­right expe­ri­ences would fool you into think­ing she’s a seen-it-all South Lon­don vet­er­an, but it’s the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of her youth which makes her take on Lon­don so poignant and bittersweet.

Audio tran­scrip­tion:

My name is Arlo Parks. I’m 18 years old and I’m an alter­na­tive singer song­writer and a poet from London.

Spend­ing sum­mer split­ting our bel­lies with laugh­ter over cheap fruit wine and Pound­land bis­cuits. With King Krule growl­ing over the trees. When I was 16, I’d take the Over­ground to Queens Road Peck­ham to see my boyfriend and there would always be bash­ment or dub glitch­ing down the train with kids in Dr Martens and metal­lic mini skirts cack­ling, slather­ing on foun­da­tion, neck­ing Cher­ry B like tap water. I wrote my first poem in Bish­ops Park, the end of my pen­cil bit­ten, pock­et stuffed with 45p Tesco sweets, whin­ing about some pret­ty skater boy next to a brown riv­er that bub­bled as it rolled up towards Hammersmith.

When I think of Lon­don I think of the park police­man telling me and my mates that we’re guests to this coun­try. I think of being drenched in sweat after a messy night, with kebab grease round my lips. Eyes led heavy, tears shed and tobac­co lost. I think of my friend’s mom being robbed at knife­point five min­utes from home. Vio­lence, vio­lets, vapes, too many bridges and my broth­er plays bas­ket­ball in the sun with his laces undone. And yes­ter­day a stranger told me I remind­ed her of her daugh­ter and offered me a rol­lie from a lit­tle gold tin with a drag­on on it. Raven­scourt Park is where I moped about, kick­ing pink blos­soms and los­ing fris­bees and bare­ly revis­ing physics. Two years lat­er I brought the per­son I liked to sit in my favourite spot on this fall­en tree. But I nev­er mus­tered up the strength to kiss them.

Instead we argued about where in Lon­don MF Doom was born and where in Lon­don William Blake died. Burn­ing to the after­noon until the Feb­ru­ary chill drove us back to the sta­tion where we end­ed up kiss­ing. Lean­ing in across the bar­ri­er while the TFL main­te­nance man whooped and bran­dished his broom­stick. Shepherd’s Bush Empire is where I saw a Loyle Carn­er make a room­ful of peo­ple howl and dance so hard they stepped on each other’s feet. I had tears in my eyes when I walked out of there. Lon­don has taught me about pas­sion and it’s taught me about the under-appre­ci­at­ed nature of most artists, from the man who plays the sax, slumped bare­foot against the wall of the under­pass, to the guy in the year above me at school who spends hours craft­ing a sin­gle sen­tence, his freestyle slip over the beat like liq­uid gold. Oh Lon­don, you made me see things so grim so glo­ri­ous so unapolo­get­i­cal­ly alive.

I’ve seen men mash fists into each other’s heads out­side Spoons. I’ve seen a lit­tle boy hold out a crushed hand­ful of daf­fodils to the lady who sells straw­ber­ries and sweet pota­toes on Northend Road. I’ve watched girls make out with tears stream­ing down their paint­ed faces by Trafal­gar Square at Pride. I’ve watched my ex fall into a pond blind drunk then scream her throat raw at the ghost who pushed her. I’ve traipsed through gal­leries on awk­ward dates and put my face against muse­um glass. Lon­don, my city of lights. This is where I grew up. This is where I learned to tough­en up. This is where I grew up. This is where I learned love. 

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