Tired of London? London in the 21st century. A tale of two Sams.
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in the July issue of Echelon magazine although they forgot to put my name on it. I originally used a strapline – Capitalist capital of crap. London in the 21st century – but the editor did not like that.
“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” — Sam Johnson
Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell was a Scot. Johnson was not a Londoner. He came from Lichfield and spoke with a harsh Midland accent. Boswell and Johnson were discussing whether or not Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin should he choose to live there, as opposed to the zest he felt on his occasional visits from Scotland. Boswell wrote in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides “By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew.”
‘London claims to be a world city – a modern, 24-hour metropolis – but this is mostly just a pretence put on for visitors.” – Sam Jordison.
Another Sam, Sam Jordison came up with the idea of a league table for crap towns of Britain. The original Crap Towns was a publishing sensation in 2003 and came out of a conversation between Jordison and Dan Kieran, deputy editor of the Idler magazine, (Dr Johnson published a book of essays called The Idler) about the respective awfulness of their own home towns.
The city of Kingston-upon-Hull proudly sat at the top of the league for five years. Hull was Hell and “smelt of death”. It may come as a surprise that London was the city that toppled Hull.
How can London be crap? London is a major world metropolis. It has recently also been voted top city in the world in terms of overall attractiveness in a survey organised by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in cahoots with the IMF and other multinational financial groups. Financial houses, multinational corporations and management consultants form a major component of what makes today’s London unattractive to humans.
The PwC’s survey boasted: “The women and men of PwC reflect the highly skilled, globally mobile services sector whose personal investment of themselves and their family is so critical to the ongoing progress of urban communities worldwide.”
So, all urban dwellers should be grateful to PwC? Many people in London are less blessed than the golden PwC employees are. Significant numbers of families across Britain are skipping meals in a bid to make ends meet. Every region of the country is affected, but in London, the proportion rises to 28 per cent of families.
When I moved to London from Manchester, I had to double my mortgage to get a much smaller house. True, I was able to drink alongside Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones in the Leather Bottle pub, but he lived in a six-bedroom house on the posher side of Kingston Road in Merton Park. Back in 1982, I wondered how the lowly paid people, whose contribution was vital to the operation of the city and the comfort of PwC’s golden employees, managed to find homes. The situation is worse now.
I lived in London from 1982 to 1998. I visited it many times before and many times since. I still love many things about the place.
I can also understand the perspective of those who voted it crappest town in Britain. I was living in London at the time of “greed is good”, when Thatcherism was forcing many to sleep on the streets. Travelling to work on a jammed up underground train, I witnessed an incident that epitomised the tenor of the times. A pregnant woman was straphanging. A gentleman of the old school stood up to offer her a seat. Before she could sit down, a Yuppie type slid underneath her and claimed the seat with a look of triumph.
Towards the end of my stay in London, I was paying GBP 2,000 per year for a season ticket to commute to central London from Lewisham (posh Blackheath/Greenwich side).
It should have been a ten-minute journey but took longer because all the trains were full after six a.m. With privatisation the trains got shorter and shorter. I never got a seat – on these cattle trucks we were just grateful for a small pocket of breathable air away from armpits. One day I thought I saw an empty seat and made my way towards it. As I approached, I saw that the seat was occupied by a pile of human turds. People were standing all around this without complaint. That is my enduring image of London.
Sam Jordison said that many who live in London are fed up with queuing, rocketing house prices, the chore of commuting, “the dangers and pure exhaustion of living there”. I once enjoyed a memorable night at Charlie Gillett’s World Music Disco but getting home after was a problem. I was a member of Ronnie Scott’s Club and saw many jazz legends perform there. Ronnie’s shuts at about 3.30 am, but the Tube closes its doors around midnight. People complained to Jordison about city bankers and a transport system that abandons late-night revellers to the mercy of rickshaws, minicabs or night buses. Cab drivers do not like going “south of the river”. Taking the night bus is a not recommended- it is a vomitorium on wheels full of drunks and psychopaths.
The annual Cities Survey, organised by the website Trip Advisor, collates the opinions of travellers to the top 37 urban tourist destinations around the world. Moscow came last. London came 11th, but achieved a respectable second place for nightlife and third for shopping. London’s worst performance was in value for money – visitors voted the city 34th in terms of how far a pound will stretch. London came 32nd of the 37 cities when the question was “how helpful were the locals?” The Trip Advisor website provides many horror stories of squalid and expensive London hotels. The horrors experienced by the Griswold family in Chevy Chase’s film National Lampoon’s European Vacation understate the awfulness of the reality.
London was rather drab in the 1950s and took some time to recover from the war. Years of decline and depopulation made much of the centre affordable. Artists, writers, musicians flocked in. It was possible, even up to the 1970s, to leave university and get a flat with your mates in Notting Hill, Marylebone or Camden Town. I stayed with people just as poor as me in Islington and Hampstead and Kensington. These days, only rich Arabs or the Russian mafia can afford those areas. Central London is a ghost town that only benefits absentee investors. The art students, musicians, and people starting out in the creative industries can no longer walk home from clubbing in Camden. The young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Soon there will nothing cool left about London. Cool will be residing in Bristol or Falmouth or Newcastle.
London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the “investor visas” that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.
To end on a more cheerful note: If you do decide to visit London, there is still much of interest (if you can manage to find somewhere decent to stay). I have many happy memories of walking around central London and the periphery. I was lucky enough to have done several jobs in the heartland of the metropolis, which enabled me to walk easily to Lincolns Inn Fields, Holborn, Bloomsbury, Clerkenwell, Smithfield, and Covent Garden and to eat my lunch to the accompaniment of brass band concerts on the Embankment near the Adelphi.
My first residence was in Putney and on long summer evenings I could walk from Putney to Barnes, stopping on the way to enjoy Young’s ambrosial nectar at the Half Moon (also purveyors of excellent live music – I saw Dr John and Maria Muldaur there among many others). The Bull’s Head at Barnes also purveys Young’s ales and fine live jazz.
Before you visit, I would recommend reading the writing of people like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who explore the psychogeography of London and examine the prehistoric atavistic mind of the city that entranced Dr Johnson, Dickens, Blake, and TS Eliot. Ackroyd and Sinclair explore the mythic strata upon which contemporary Londoners walk. Much of Sinclair’s recent work consists of a revival of occultist psychogeography of London. In London Orbital he wrote about a trek around the M25, which JG Ballard described as: “A journey into the heart of darkness and a fascinating snapshot of who we are”. Andrew Duncan’s walking guides provide practical help for those wishing to explore this magical world. Duncan’s Secret London tells you how to find London’s buried rivers, underground tunnels, abandoned tube stations, elegant squares, dark alleyways and cobbled courtyards and explains who owns most of the freehold property. Duncan, Ackroyd and Sinclair help to keep alive the magic of London.