The novelist AL Kennedy recently said that “being out of London is the new being in London”. Ironically we were both moving to the same place for largely the same reasons, though my exit was less newsworthy and (possibly, who knows?) more agonised.
And it seems that those we'd categorise as thinking people have to consider their reasons for leaving London. We may decry gentrification, pollution, the struggle of managing children. And, after we have emotionally and physically extracted ourselves from this “problem”, we await a better life on the outside, in whatever “like London but without the bad bits” location we have chosen.
Yet nagging doubts claw away at our consciousness. Practically each and every article on the topic references Samuel Johnson's “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” quote, and so we feel a need to justify our actions. Life will be much the same, we say, just in a bigger house and fresher air, as we rampage around the countryside elevating house prices, only to then feel culturally displaced and alien.
Because, if the EU Referendum vote told us anything, it was that there is a huge symbolic gulf between London and the rest. London is hated for its imagined wealth, the volume of foreigners who reside in it, and its cultural cosmopolitanism. And London hates England because of its assumed backwards-looking parochialism. But all this is just a projection. The two are more similar than they’d like to believe – and making England more like London and London more like England could radically change the fortunes of this troubled island.
So why should England become more like London? London is incomparable for sheer hyperactive energy. Everything gets used – time, people, buildings. Businesses are continually being set up, new restaurants appearing. Innovation is central to the London environment. Want to set up a multi-use space where creatives chat over coffee by day and musicians play a gig by night? Great, just don’t try it in Zone 1.
Arguably, this dynamism happens because of the impact of the City of London, financing hipster businesses to revalorise a locale. But it is more than that. London has, first with reluctance and then with enthusiasm, embraced immigration, and consequently, it has revitalised our culture, our high streets, our food, and our economy. Diversity acts upon the brain in such a way that we get used to considering differences between people, thus increasing our empathy as well as our ability to handle complex information. It gives us ideas, big ideas, just like those migrants who were brave enough to travel across countries, continents and seas for an outstretched dream.
Compare that to not-London, where I am surprised by the sheer wastage of people, buildings and places. Older women and men, incredibly talented and imaginative, not engaged in productive activity of any kind. Young people criticised for anti-social behaviour when the reality is there’s nothing cool to do. Mothers, raising their kids wonderfully but outside of paid employment, all the while feeling bored and unmotivated. Poor wages and expensive houses; small parks and playgrounds. Immigrants, still energetically trying to build new lives, isolated and often ghettoised by an unforgiving racism.
And still locals mutter about there being too many people in their spacious towns and villages, with driveways and garages. Lonely people and empty streets. Incredible buildings not yet converted into an art gallery, bar, restaurant or home. Art galleries built in a fit of over-achievement that lay fallow and rejected. It is wasteful and gives a lie to the brave new world promised by English Brexiteers.
For the most part, in London, councils have set aside parochial considerations to boost development and creative activity, either through flagship projects or seeding. They build relationships. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes the make decisions which are downright socially unjust. They struggle with implicit corruption. But even the most entrenched local boroughs get it eventually, after sustained assaults on its fortresses by activists and entrepreneurs.
The other side
In the zone of not-London, progress is always sluggish, and councils seem reluctant to let go of the shibboleths of large-scale housing developments, roads and supermarkets. Frankly, it is hard for them to do anything, without being weighed down by the population’s conservative muttering and resistance to any change.
But looking at it from the other side – how London should be more like England – another picture emerges. Consider London’s vast swathes of poor, left to rot in sub-standard housing and moments away from being cast out beyond the city walls. And it has a fair percentage of mothers, older people, disabled people, and so on, with underutilised skills.
Nor is London is as welcoming to immigrants and each other as it claims. Jock Young once referred to London as a place of “lightly engaged strangers,” while Tim Butler argued relationships between ethnicities in London were “tectonic”, meaning coexisting in segregation, even if we do live on the same street. We all know the narratives about the isolationism of hipster entrepreneurialism, but it applies more broadly. We live in the same place, but do we speak across the garden fence? Perhaps London could learn from the civility of the English village, but apply it to a multicultural context instead.
The rat race in action: London Bridge. Image: Getty.
Time is lost in London like a running stream. Merely getting from one place to another to see a doctor, dentist, or even do the shopping takes hours of your time. And in London too, prising people out of their cars is seemingly akin to trying to hack off their arm from their body, with devastating consequences for health (for the ageing, the elderly, the infirm, children).
London is too tightly packed for sanity and could benefit from the size, looser spatial frames and amenities of not-London. Not everyone wants to embrace the city and all it can offer, but they are forced there because of work or the racialised prejudices of elsewhere. Too many people in the capital know nothing beyond their neighbourhood and fear the outside. Just as England fears London, so London fears England.
And its commercialism has pretty much done for its subculture – the London I knew as a mardy teenager – judging by the ongoing closure of clubs and pubs. In the zone of not-London, eccentricity abounds, even if it is homeless.
London is not the Promised Land, though it is a hugely important social experiment. The debates we are having represent our very skewed culture where the imposed reality is, on the one side, overwork and hyperactivity, and on the other, under activity and waste.
There needs to be a redistribution of economic activity so that London does and contains less, and England – the not-London – does more. But that implies the regions should try to create more to entice young people to stay. It means more cultural entrepreneurialism and other hipster amenities, and less bucolic countryside preserved in aspic. More Richard Florida and less Jane Austin. Local governments need to encourage culture, economic activity and regeneration more effectively, to lead, not follow – or worse, disrupt. And yes, sometimes people from elsewhere can show us how. Maybe it’s time we stopped complaining and listened.
So is not-London the new London? It could be if people and governments allowed themselves to become more porous. But we are still a long way from that, and, with an impending Brexit led by Randian ideologues and nouveau fascists, aided by a large dose of incompetency, it feels like an ever more distant ideal.
Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist specialising in culture, society and all things urban.