London is weird. Living in London is weird. I know it intellectually, and I’ve definitely lived in some of the absolute weirdest ways in London, and it’s not like I can’t have noticed that recent period where I was living on a boat with no door in a tidal creek or anything.
But you can get used to anything – especially with the blinkers-on observational shutdown of city life. So even if everyone I know from everywhere else knows that London is an alien concept, and even if when I actually stop to think about it the dissonance does creep a bit, I mostly don’t notice. Like when the rent comes out and you just think, “ah, the immutable force that makes me poor despite earning well over the national average has visited again, like the tooth fairy”. And then get a six quid pint to soothe it all over.
I’m a motorsport journalist, and I travel a lot for work. Covering Formula E, you get to see cities – and I’m interested in cities. My work involves a lot of mysterious wandering around Eastern Europe, taking dramatically grim photos of concrete, and I own more books about bricks than most people, especially most people who write about driving in circles for a living.
Some of it sort of smacks you in the face. I went to Monte Carlo last year; it’s a staggering, high-rise ode to being filthy rich, so sumptuously and comfortably presented on the Mediterranean coast that, like a Tory who keeps buying you rounds of drinks, you feel your ethics being so very pleasantly eroded by every second you spend there. Obviously, I paused to look in an estate agent’s window to laugh at how many millions of pounds I’d need to rent a shoebox, ready to be vicariously stunned by the lavish costs around me.
It was about the same as a posh flat in London Bridge. For some reason, my reaction to this was to question why living in the 2km2 of Monaco wasn’t more expensive, not what on earth London had done to itself. I mentioned it to a fellow Formula E person from London and they agreed – how was this tiny haven of tax evasion so darned cheap? Haha, how we laughed.
Not that I can afford a flat in London Bridge. But if I could, the weather’s definitely nicer in Monte Carlo – and the air doesn’t try to murder you.
I just got back from Mexico City, which has the most traffic of anywhere on earth. Oh sure, you notice it – the roads are constantly jammed and the two taxis I took were the result of laziness that I instantly regretted, taking fifteen times longer than the excellent tube network. (Like, er, London – albeit with more accessible stations.)
People had warned me about the smog because that’s a thing you know about Mexico City; it’s at high altitude, there’s smog, and something about tacos. I cheerfully announced there wasn’t any, on a day when apparently there was an air pollution warning – because my black-gunk-filled, wheezing respiratory system is so used to London. I was genuinely finding it easier to breathe.
Equally, I had a sort of guilty meltdown three days in when I finally remembered I was in a city that had a devastating earthquake only last year. How could I forget or ignorantly not notice that? It wasn’t because I had some idea of Mexico City as half-demolished, some colonialist snoot about a poorer country: it’s because I’m so utterly numb to Crossrail-or-whatever-it-is-now digging enormous craters across everywhere that I just took reconstruction work or semi-crushed buildings to be background signs that Developments Were Taking Place.
Naturally, like any good Londoner I have long ceased looking directly at the Developments as I know they are not for me. So I hadn’t even glanced over the fences of the multiple sites I walked past, frantically raising a city from the earth that had floored it.
In Hong Kong I didn’t notice the high density. Staying in Chungking Mansions, famed for being threatening and warren-like, I reminisced in blasé fashion about the period I worked in Hannibal House, the condemned carbuncle whose concrete decay threatens the Elephant & Castle shopping centre. At a champagne-brand sponsored after party, I enthused to a colleague that the drinks were very reasonably priced at a mere £13 for a gin & tonic. I’d expected it to be much worse.
In Singapore, I found myself idly thinking about the fact the police weren’t very heavily armed, and that I hadn’t seen many of them for this supposedly repressive regime. Which is at least absolutely because Singaporean police weren’t the ones that have menaced me into keeping my passport on me at all times in the city I live in, because I am so scared by repeated requirements to prove I’m allowed in the country that I just numbly homogenised it into the field of ‘normal’.
I’m not stupid, or ill-informed about the places I’ve been, and very occasionally something does still strike me, like my naive observation that buildings in Montreal are really big. And in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I sickened myself by thinking I hadn’t seen any really shocking poverty – just because I am so used to seeing it in London. Returning to work when I got back, it was the families sleeping on the streets of the UK capital that shook me after the respite.
On a lighter note, I do often notice that cities are quite small. Berlin, Montevideo, Marrakesh – all tiny. Copenhagen, Toulouse, Turin – microscropic. Nothing seems further than 45 minutes’ walk away in Berlin: I don’t think I’d even hit Zone 2 in the same time, setting out from my home in East Ham.
Which is a neat summary; London has blown all my senses of scale. It’s galactic-brain-style, big-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness expanded my concept of price, size, construction, pollution so totally that I have no ability to even quantify them anymore.
Sipping wine in a UFO-shaped restaurant suspended precariously above Bratislava, I found the shaking every time a tram went over the bridge below didn’t bother my vertigo as much as it should. “Just like a tube train, really,” I said to my companion. Before wishing I could punch myself in my stupid Londoner face and get back some kind of sense of awe.