London has numbed me to everything and I have lost all sense of wonder

Sunshine over south London. Sort of. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.