Why I'm leaving London
25 July 2012
It was a conversation between Dr Samuel Johnson and his fellow writer and biographer James Boswell that “......... when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”. The conversation that took place in 1777 became immortalised and reclaimed as a saying that ‘to be tired of London is to be tired of life’. I remember hearing the saying while growing up in London in the 1960s – a city of contrasts from the bombed out post-war London of the East End to the glamorous West End where the night skies burned bright at Christmas time and where the shops were bolder and bigger and better. A city that sold a thousand dreams – a magic place to the mind of an impressionable child - London was a city that appeared to offer so much and where anything was attainable and throughout my formative years London was all I knew.
As a young adult, I returned to London at the earliest opportunity with £10.00 to my name and a temporary place of residence to start a new job where the monthly wage did not even cover the rent for what shortly became my first home – a squalid bedsitter just off Baker Street right in the centre of things. Life was hard and I worked at it. This was 1979 – a period dismissed by many peer commentators as nondescript - but for me an exciting time as I cherished my independence while exploring difficult and often painful issues surrounding my identity.
I have lived in London for the duration right up to the present times – and can count among my former addresses a mirrored top floor apartment in Chelsea where I could see almost the entire length of the King’s Road from my balcony (the good times) and a hostel where I shared a room with up to five people at a time – they were tourists on a cheap backpack whereas I was homeless (the bad). I have lived at more places than I can count or possibly remember. I have had more jobs than I can remember. And, despite the turbulence and insecurity of my existence, I completed a personal journey and found my identity.
London has long enjoyed a reputation as a city that embraces diversity within its population and therefore the place that was already my home appeared as the natural and perfect base to see me through the challenging next stage in my life – as I campaign for legal recognition and accordant ‘rights’ and social visibility as a person of non-gendered identity. And it was unconceivable that I should ever consider the prospect of moving away.
But now I’ve had enough and I’m leaving.
Leaving London had been on my mind for some time but something I did not want to allow myself to think and much less act upon. And more recently my partner – who originated from the north of England but embraced London life and regarded London as a permanent home – has reluctantly come around to the idea. It was while going through a period of serious illness some months ago that brought about my decision to leave and I have not looked back or been tempted to reconsider. We plan to go later this year and I can only look forward to our departure.
Tired of life? No – I am tired of a city that offers me nothing and does not even remotely resemble the London that I once regarded as my place of belonging. Regretfully, I have to say that I feel alienated from my surroundings to the extent I do not really regard myself a Londoner any more. And I have an urgent need to leave.
The seismic changes London has witnessed over the last fifteen years have made for an altogether different living experience and it is detrimental in every respect. I can accept change when the changes are for the better and there will always be an element of change in every major city but the change that has occurred in London has brought no benefit to either myself or my partner. The changes have not enhanced our lives in any way – rather our freedoms have been eroded in many ways while London has become progressively a blueprint for corporate soullessness and homogeneity.
The reality is that London today is often joyless, an overcrowded and angry place where events happen over which the city’s inhabitants have little or no control. London’s residents are currently moving out in large numbers, due to the unaffordability of finding somewhere – anywhere – to live within London’s perimeter that is decent and spacious, and that applies whether one wants to buy or rent a home. A city that has become increasingly unaffordable to anyone on an average income during a period of immense visible growth and development – where lavish new apartments in building blocks are rising from the ground at alarming speed and almost micro towns within themselves yet priced out of reach of the people who live and work in London and are consequently snapped up by foreign investors. Where property ownership is now the preserve of the wealthy driven throughout the last decade by short sighted government policy that encouraged anyone with spare cash to become an amateur landlord. Now whole swathes of London is occupied almost entirely by tenants – social housing aside, the roof over a tenant’s head is conditional upon an insecure short-term rental agreement – many Londoners are living in properties built to accommodate as many people in as small a space as possible as buy-to-let landlords have profited exponentially with no benefit to the rest of society. City of neon lights? London has become a city of parasites.
The London of twenty years ago was a typical bustling capital city – too many people vying for too little space – but nonetheless there was a feeling that London was ‘manageable’. The London of today has the feel of a city that is overcrowded and where something has to give. London’s population has undoubtedly grown but I believe the root of contemporary London’s sense of unease is down to more than numbers – where the chasm between the wealth of the city institutions and the lived existence of many Londoners who are engaged in menial work conveys not a sense of achievable aspiration but more a grinding hopelessness – the other side is visible and close enough to taste but could be a million miles away. London is indeed a city of contrasts where the privileged often rub shoulders with the dispossessed but the privilege is inaccessible and out of reach.
London is a city where policies are designed to encourage tourists to visit – rather than designed to meet the needs of people who live and work here. London relies on tourism as an industry but with the expectation of a vastly increased number of visitors to the capital this year, I wonder what will be their expectation of London? And the impression when expectation does not meet the reality?
London’s portrayal as a world class city conveys a level of expectation but – whereas New York is the city that never sleeps – London is the city that closes down at night. This was not always the case – and I remember when it was possible to enter a restaurant at midnight without a reservation and order a meal. I have had discussions with contemporaries about the phenomena of receding opening hours – I felt it was important to hear others’ perspective just in case my memories of midnight restaurant dinner were nothing more than a series of rose-tinted misrecollection fuelled by too much alcohol. Inhabitants of the city who lament the passing of London as it was thirty years ago can also remember when it was no big deal to go to a restaurant late at night – whereas nowadays it is almost impossible to get a reservation after 10:30pm. Maybe a result of increasingly stringent operating licence laws, the change happened rapidly, without media fanfare and barely noted at the time. Throughout the puritanical 1990’s there was a continuation of a certain kind of ‘progress’ where the heart of the city began to degrade until any comparison to a proverbial city of dreams was that everyone appeared to be asleep by midnight.
London has become a place where car ownership is increasingly challenging. Following the inauguration of Mayor Livingstone at the onset of this millennia (a man who, never having passed his driving test, betrayed a pathological hatred of cars and all motorists), anti-car policies were introduced that sought to penalise the motorist. There was a calculated and politicised vision to turn London into a carless city through forcing motorists off the road. Car drivers were portrayed as irresponsible social pariahs and it was no longer possible to drive a car through London without a degree of apprehension after a succession of increasingly draconian measures were introduced in order to generate cash for the authorities through the penalisation of the motorist. As London is now also purported to be the most surveilled city in the world, any minor transgression will probably not escape the view of a CCTV camera – another phenomena that has spread through London at an alarming rate. People are constantly watched but do not feel any safer for that. To live or work in London is to be spied on and that is now a fact of life.
Mayor Livingstone is now out of office but his legacy of an anti-motorist culture has forced many Londoners to abandon their cars. The new landscape – bus lanes, cycle lanes, more traffic lights, speed humps, a drastic reduction in the number of metered parking spaces and reduction of street parking in general – does not encourage newcomers to take to the road by car. While less cars on the road is not a bad thing – I am sympathetic to the argument that we should all have a duty to protect our environment – it was the applied methodology that left with me a sense of deep unease about whether I really belonged in London. As the responsible owner of a relatively compact ‘city’ car who traditionally enjoyed driving and still prefers to drive as a means to get around, I am now portrayed as a social pariah in my own city.
Another Livingstone legacy – 2012 is the year London gets to host the Olympics – and the city is in lockdown mode as the big day approaches. Seven years in the planning, Londoners have been encouraged, chided almost to the point of bullying, to get behind this event. The fact is that most of London’s population were less than thrilled with the prospect of ongoing disruption and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of visitors who would clamour for space on a public transport network that was already overcrowded to the point of incapacity. I was dumbfounded that London was chosen for “the Games”, an event that I was aware took place somewhere in the world every four years but an event I rarely accorded much consideration because I happen to find athletic sport extremely boring. London’s taxpayers – who would undoubtedly foot the bill – remain rightfully and justifiably concerned. An event that represents nothing more than an exercise in corporate excess on a global scale was set to take place on our doorstep and London was expected to support it regardless of the disruption and personal inconvenience. London’s hosting of the Olympics was yet another vanity project that many Londoners did not want.
Londoners are prepared for chaos on the streets and London’s over-burdened public transport system that cannot cope at the best of times as mere mortals are herded around like cattle with an anticipated 570,000 visitors. Meanwhile designated lanes along some of London’s busiest roads are reserved for Olympics officials, foreign dignitaries and corporate sponsor paymasters. London’s shops and restaurant businesses will take deliveries at night because goods distributors cannot use (cannot cross) the officially designated Olympic “Green Lanes” between the hours 6:00am to midnight. Missiles have been positioned on top of residential buildings – the questionable benefit of London’s hosting of the Olympics concerns not just the massive level of inconvenience to everyone who lives and works here and needs to be able to get around – there is more and it is downright scary. None of this was made apparent in the early days of the project at such time Livingstone and cohorts were embarking on their dubious charm offensive to persuade London’s people to love the Olympics.
The Olympics will be secured by military personnel because a contracted private security firm failed to fulfil its obligation to supply trained staff to police the events. There has been much debate about the contractor’s £57million management fee that has already changed hands and the private contractor’s refusal to reimburse the money back into public finances. This is an embarrassing and highly public example of practices that have flourished in London more recently. Much less was said about the queues of jobseekers – mostly young and inexperienced people – who were led to believe the Olympics would offer work and an opportunity for a better future. That these people were offered useless ‘training’, a uniform, even a building pass and then no paid work is indicative of the callously indifferent management culture that has predominated throughout London over the last decade and a half. The Olympics were promoted as a creator of jobs for local people whereas the reality is a sizable majority of those jobs would appear to be voluntary – but, as Londoners, it is our ‘duty’ to support the Olympics as something that is good for London – although any dubious benefit, it has now been admitted, will not be apparent for about twenty years. While people who used to live on what has become the Olympic Village were forced to move in order their homes could be destroyed and small businesses uprooted in order to pave the way for this event, any perceived beneficial legacy to London’s many –as opposed to privileged few – is tenuous to say the least.
Now with less than one week to go the city has taken on a certain strangeness. There is something unseen yet palpable and I can feel it in the air. The unease is infused with resigned anticipation apparent in the shops and on the streets as the visitors are arriving, the lane restrictions are in force and the whole circus has gone into overdrive. After seven years of negativity over the imminent arrival of the London Olympics – I was thrilled when the military helicopter carrying the Olympic flame on its journey to the Tower of London flew at low level right past my window overlooking the River Thames last week – I watched from the balcony and for one brief second I felt excitement about the event – for just one brief second, “........ for there is in London all that life can afford”, almost close enough to taste but inaccessible and out of reach.
Copyright ©2012 Christie Elan-Cane
All rights reserved
The author is engaged in personal campaign to achieve legal and social recognition for human identity outside the gendered societal structure NON-GENDERED – Fighting for Legal Recognition