DURING MY EARLY LIFE as a peripatetic and penniless poet, I have twice lived in London, otherwise known as the Big Smoke, the Great Wen or just That There London. I arrived the first time at the end of the 1970s full of hope, with a proper job to go to and even a pad to crash at (as we still used to say). When I left a couple of years later I had lost my job, two girlfriends and most of my sanity.
Within a mere five years I was back, this time with a new girlfriend and no job, but again with somewhere to live. I was a lot more savvy by then. We were situated south of the river, in New Cross. Not so salubrious, by any means, but as I’d ended up in Soho on the previous tour of duty, I couldn’t complain. I have to admit I grew to prefer south of the river to the north. There is a difference, though I can’t really define what it is.
When I finished the second sojourn and headed back north I was without the girlfriend but with some cash in my pocket and all my sanity. And I had a rusty VW Beetle. That was definitely an improvement. I was a Poet with Wheels. As I drove away I waved goodbye forever to London.
What got me thinking about this was reading articles by people moaning about London and in a couple of cases explaining why they quit. Maybe it’s something to do with the recent election, since the moaners seem to be Guardian lefties. Rowan Moore outlines the case: massive development, rising rents, too many rich people, too many artisan shops being put out of business, the Shard, the destruction of “communities”, not enough state intervention. Too much enterprise, too much renewal.
Writer Rafael Behr comes up with the same litany of shame for his reasons for having quit the Great Wen – to settle in London-by-the-Sea, otherwise known as Brighton, where, I’m sure, the house prices are not as high as London’s but definitely higher than those outside the south-east.
Another writer, Cory Doctorow, originally Canadian, says he’s decided to relocate back to the States (Los Angeles, no less) because of, well, the same old-same old crony-capitalism and money-grubbing attitudes. He should find the America of Obama’s anti-business “you-didn’t-build-that” rhetoric quite refreshing then.
Here’s my view of their gripes about London:
it’s too expensive (it always has been)
it’s too busy and frenetic (it always has been)
it’s too transient (it always has been)
it’s got too many rich bastards (it always has had)
it’s got too many people obsessed with making money (it always has)
it’s got too many poor people (it always has)
it’s too impersonal (it always was).
SO WHAT ANNOYS me about this moaning, given that I don’t like the city myself and would never live there again? I think it’s the fact that these individuals are themselves all well-off enough to live and own property there but feel some sort of guilt about those who can’t or who find it difficult to get by. If you can’t afford it or just feel the place is getting on top of you, say so; I can understand that. Just don’t give us all this sensitive, liberal stuff about how much you care about the downtrodden.
The London I first used to visit and in which I lived was still a post-war city, much of it tatty, dirty, run-down. If you watch repeats of films and tv programmes set in London up until the mid-1990s you’ll see what I mean. It’s one of my favourite pastimes now, pointing out the litter-strewn streets, the peeling paintwork, the rotting window frames, the mucky walls and pavements.
It wasn’t until I was walking along the river from Aldgate to the Strand one morning about ten years ago that I realised London had become a modern city at last, new buildings, cleaner streets, better shops, better transport, and so on.
It’s also grown in population, much of that a result of mass immigration, something which the complainers fail to mention, which is odd given that one of the things they constantly go on about is the lack of housing. It’s even more of an international city than before, full of multicultural richness and diversity, ie, foreign restaurants and shops. It is becoming less and less British by the decade, as the last census revealed: it’s the first area in the UK where white British are in a minority, ie 45 percent.
I would have thought this would suit the liberal sentiments of the leavers, but obviously it’s not enough to counter the other side of the multicultural coin they don’t like, the influx of foreign money and property owners. You can’t have one without the other.
Not that I care. There is life outside the Great Wen. I lit out for the territory years ago and that’s where I’m staying.