A Rival for Departure
03 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
The people of Cornwall have a telling name for the humble Puffin, the pint-sized bird that bustles its way around many of the county’s cliff tops, occasionally stopping to stare vacantly at the sea as though it had never seen it before; they call it ‘The Londoner’. The exact origin may have more to do with the old Norse name for the bird, but if you stop for a moment to compare this comical character with tourists down in the county for a fortnight’s worth of wind and warm Atlantic drizzle, a world of similarities begins to open up. Puffins are noisy, they are gregarious, their chaotic lives are arranged so that that they live cheek by jowl with one another in tiny little homes and by the time that winter has come, Puffins, as well as their metropolitan namesakes, have all flown the county and are busy pumping their guano out to sea somewhere else.
For all the endearing qualities of the bird, the comparison is hardly a positive view of the inhabitants of our capital city, but it is an opinion that is not unique to Cornwall by any means. The consensus view of London from outside of the Home Counties is something of a tired and withering glance. A worry about its enormous gravitational field, its propensity for centralising everything and the brute force of its financial markets are understandable concerns. Add to those preoccupations a natural loathing of anything that proclaims itself to be svelte, sophisticated and cool – which, undeniably, is the capital’s self-image – yet still gives succour and attention to godawful anachronisms like the Pearly Kings and Queens, and you have a strong base to build distrust and antagonism.
Then there are the unavoidable environmental and social factors. Unless they drink and bathe in Evian, Londoners may need to use water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of somebody living in their road.
On the social level, like many large cities, London can be a very lonely place, but there is another dimension; it is often said that a simple act of unsolicited friendliness, like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation, will draw the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. What you will get for your trouble is a terrified, hostile stare that makes pissing in your water seem polite by comparison.
There are many other reported faults with the place and the people. There is that annoying habit of Londoners to talk to their out of town friends about London streets as though they were internationally recognised landmarks. Move over Stonehenge, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the pyramids at Giza, and make way for ‘Goodge Street’ and ‘the bottom of Tottenham Court Road’.
Londoners who insist on behaviour like this are bad ambassadors for the city, especially when they stretch beyond the merely supercilious, to become haughty and condescending as well. Force-fed as they are, with an image of their home town as a world-class city – an image they accept without any question because it confirms what they think of themselves – they are often unable to deal with the realities of anything that exists outside the confines of the M25. When they do step off the hallowed soil of the capital, they tend to take a part of London with them, unfortunately it’s the wrong bit to carry – a brusque and hurried arrogance, unsympathetic to any other way of doing things. Still plugged into some kind of Caffe Nero Matrix, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.
Despite being the son of two Londoners – or perhaps because of it, I used to share this dim view of the metropolis and its occupants. I thought that the place was hugely overrated, especially by professional metropolinites like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Will Self, not to mention those arbiters of cool who are so provincial that the idea of a cab ride south of the Thames is tantamount to a rendezvous with social death.
It was therefore a huge surprise to most of my friends when I announced that, in my extreme late thirties, I intended to move from a resting and rather self-satisfied seaside town on the idyllic coast of Cornwall to an edgy and urgent environment bang-slap in the centre of Britain’s largest city.
Friends of family who comforted themselves that the move was going to be to some benign suburb or other were horrified when I told them that it wasn’t the anonymous hinterland I was seeking, but the real deal; if I was moving to London it was going to be Central London. I was tired of living on the periphery of things, I wanted to live on an entirely different edge altogether.
So, in the eyes of the Cornish at least, I joined the colony. In moving to London, I became a puffin. Although a few of my friends were delighted and admired my recklessness, others were absolutely stunned. It would be fair to say that many feared – though I’m hoping that not too many wished – the move would be a complete disaster and I would be back in Cornwall soon, with my life in ruin, my bank balance evaporated and my tail between my legs. Even the removal man who came to price up the job tried to talk me out of it. “That London” was essentially an evil pit of despair, crime and hatred. I must be mad. A mad puffin flying headlong into the smoke. Needless to say, it was a different removal firm that took me to London a few short months later.
The first thing that I noticed was that the dim view of London was shared by many Londoners themselves. They love to exchange stories of extreme violence, the obscene price of accommodation and the general cost of living in our biggest city. Commuting, pollution and the rudeness of shopkeepers are a popular subject of the odd idle moan and the price of a pint comes close as a perennial favourite. One friend of mine recently told me that, of his extensive network of London friends, I am the only one he knows who wants to stay. Most of his mates continually gripe about the capital, often for very good reasons – the place is far from perfect, after all – and are all hatching plans to move somewhere else as soon as circumstances turn in their favour. Some, usually exercising the combined willpower at the command of a couple, have even stopped moaning about London for long enough to do something about it and actually leave.
They are not the only ones. According to the Countryside Agency, a million people have left our cities to move to the country over the last ten years. In a sense, they were seeking the direct opposite of London; a complete volte-face lifestyle change; a symbolic about-turn that, I believe, says as much about them as the circumstances they were trying to escape from – whether that was fleeing the toxic cocktail of diesel fumes and low-level ozone, leaving the crime-filled streets of metropolitan life or striving for a simpler back-to-basics existence for themselves and their families. It’s now such a familiar story, it has almost become an urban rite of passage stuck there in the middle years of British life between puberty and death. Where once our forebears waited until retirement to be swept away by the lure of thatched cottages with unfeasibly thick walls, the modern Briton feels the urge in his or her thirties. They cite all the usual reasons, fear of violence, the daily commute and other urban anxieties.
Most of those anxieties are simply elevated versions of the worries on everyone’s shoulders – that their suburban home is going to be burgled, then blown up by a brutish gang of teenage homosexual al Qaeda suicide bombers wearing hoodies, a situation that even the hysterical and lascivious Evening Standard would struggle to reduce to Gay Terror Teens Go Bang in Burgled Bungalow. It’s a compound worry, an amalgamation of anxieties fed to us daily by Standard screamer boards, headline crime figures (that is, statistics for headlines picked out of context for their emotional power) and blind terror of ‘the other’ – what is not you and yours and you have no understanding or control of even though it is all around you. Mix it all up and there it is; unarguable proof of your worst nightmare – that your town is a toilet and there you are, peering up from the bowl.
This feeling of capital panic not only circulates around the city, but stretches beyond London’s boundaries to the rest of the country. A friend of mine visiting from Cornwall confided that she was very worried about making the trip and wondered what she would find when she got here. I was astounded to discover that she expected to see armies of grey zombie commuters marching the city streets not looking at one another for fear of being randomly attacked. She believed that shopkeepers would be hostile and guarded, that she would be able to sense racial tensions and anger, in one form or another, would be all around. She’d only been to London once, in her early teens, and she didn’t experience anything then to form those opinions, so I wondered where the source material came from. In her case, she must have picked it up from the media, from friends and from the general attitude that the big city is evil incarnate and the best you can do is survive it.
TV companies are partly responsible for the diabolical image projected of the capital – thinly-veiled estate agency shows like Location, Location, Location persist in showing London through the barrel of a telephoto lens, squashing people and perspective on top of one another in a busy street with a red bus in it. The hackneyed library shots are all filmed at a disconcerting angle of seven degrees from the perpendicular and then crash zoom into another shot, this time of fluorescent-faced businessmen getting off a slam door train at London Bridge Station which, to be fair, is a bit of a shit hole. This then cuts to a slow pan shot of green hills under a wide blue sky with light, puffy-fluffy cumulus clouds patiently queueing up to be featured in a pastoral poem by someone who lives in a windmill and wears Arran knit sweaters in winter. A vision of bucolic loveliness to lure you away from your urgent lifestyles, without any narration to indicate that every single gingerbread cottage on view is owned by an escaped Londoner bitching about the absence of coffee bars or bus services.
So what exactly is wrong with our cities in general and London in particular? Why the headlong rush to give up the melee of convenience and violence that is a bristling capital city of the 21st century? One of my friends told me that one of the reasons he moved from London, where he worked as a high profile architect, was to get away from other high profile architects, whose sole topics of conversation were the interesting clients they were working for and the even more interesting clients they would cheerfully drop them to work for instead. Another reason was money; not the lack of it nor the difficulty of gaining access to more of it but, rather, the measurement of it as a status symbol along with everything that entailed; the postcode you could afford to live in, the daily commute to the postcode you could absolutely not afford to live in, but were required to work in instead, your choices of home furnishings, mobile phones, personal digital assistants and mp3 player. All good reasons to go, but it struck me that his main complaint was that all his London drinking buddies were obviously self-obsessed braying wankers, in which case he would have been a lot better off simply not answering the phone. As it is, he made a wise decision to seek out simpler pleasures in the country because he’s very happy now, which just goes to show that the only path to follow is your own.
And this is my path and that’s my point. I wrote this book because I was tired of being told how shit London is and being asked when I was thinking of moving out, as if it was the destiny of us all to go and live somewhere more settled, less dynamic. As if cities were only for the young. As if I have to accept the dull orthodoxy that leads people to pasture just when their social experience of the world makes human interaction become an ever more exciting prospect.
Every day, I wake up and am excited by the prospects that London holds. I make it my business to see what is going on, take notice of the extraordinary details carved into the architecture and the mix of hope, despair, fear and excitement written onto people’s faces. Everyone over the age of eight knows that the streets of London aren’t paved with gold, but many adults make the same kind of mistake about the countryside – namely that Rose Cottage awaits them in rural Britain. That it is quiet, that the people are friendlier, that a babbling brook and a life of rich and easy contentment is on offer in the country.
Well, perhaps it is time to grow up and smell the compromise. Everywhere is a trade off, nowhere is perfect and that includes the countryside. The things you have to give up are not just easy retail convenience and public transport; there’s far more to it than that. I lived in Cornwall for twenty years and my time there was a long succession of short-term jobs. I had no career and, therefore, no interest in any of those jobs, beyond adopting them as a holding position until things became more cheery. My guiding purpose to getting up every day was simply to make ends meet, to get by, to buy food, to pay the mortgage. I was on a treadmill and I didn’t even have the luxury of escape as I was, apparently, destitute in paradise.
But paradise – where perfect happiness may be found – is not necessarily a place. It is, rather, a state of mind, a way of being. For me it meant doing what I wanted to do, pleasing myself, having a happy life. This is what happened when I got there.