I’ve been back residing in London for nearly two months now, and am already feeling fed up with it. There are annoying elements to all cities in general – the noise, the crowds, the air quality – but London is the city I know best, and also happens to be one of the most popular and powerful in the world. People come here with such high expectations, including those who are from England, such is the mania that surrounds the capital. I read blogs gushing about the city, advising tourists of the top 10 things one ‘must’ see and do. These lists tend to involve the activities and sights of splendour that glorify crown and empire, painting a picture of London as being a place where one can access affluence with ease and articulate authority through a posh accent. Most travel bloggers have been guilty at one time or another of only addressing the face-value of a city and not looking any deeper into its cultural soul, but because of its prominence in the world, the habit of doing this when writing about London feels even more frustrating to an actual resident. If only these adoring fans who are supposedly experts on London really knew what it was like to live here as a ‘commoner’.
Firstly there are the practical issues, such as expense. Rent is ridiculously high for a flat that offers very little apart from a box for a bedroom complete with peeling paint and no double glazing. If you’re prepared to spend three-quarters of your monthly earnings on rent in a central location, you might get a living room. (And yet, London somehow still doesn’t make the top five most expensive cities in the world!) Locals are kicked out of areas that their family has lived in for generations by a process of gentrification that invites Russian oligarchs and Arab princes to take their place. The word ‘terrorism’ seems to hang in the air amongst thick clouds of smog, and yet this monitored threat only leaves behind a lingering sense of personal intrusion from the authorities above. You can go running to make yourself feel better about spending most of your time on your bum cooped up inside an office staring at a computer screen, but unless you’re lucky to live right next to a park (of which, in fairness, there are quite a few) you’re likely to spend much of that ‘healthy’ time poisoning your lungs with car fumes and causing damage to your joints as you pound hard pavements, dodging posing tourists and stopping to wait for the green man.
In terms of society, there is so much hostility everywhere, as if the claustrophobia of city life makes people resent the others they are competing with for space. People flash you venomous looks as soon as you happen to accidentally nudge them on the tube, or look at you in suspicious surprise should you thank them for letting you off the train. I’ve seen the same guy at my stop a few times now, and he only receives my smile of recognition with a look that makes me wonder if I have two heads. Taxi drivers seem to spend half their day with their hand on a horn, whilst confrontations between white-van drivers and cyclists are part of the scenery. Every few weeks, a cyclist will be killed in a collision. I seem to encounter so many scenarios that make me feel sad – scenes of poverty, illness and loneliness. The other week, I helped a lady cross a busy road after she twice walked out at tortoise-pace in front of rapidly approaching traffic. Clinging onto my arm, she said simply, “I’m 92 and think I’m going a bit crazy.” I wondered how many people she has here that actually care for her. Then there’s the youthful gang culture which only last weekend saw a 16 year old boy be stabbed to death on my road, supposedly for his bike.
However, sometimes London has its nice socio-cultural moments. I’ve been making notes of the times pleasant things have happened on the way to work, like the time I spoke to a stranger on the tube or witnessed a man offer to help a woman lift her buggy up the station stairs. The fact that these are occasions worthy of note-making is a sign of how rare they are. London is full of contrasts. Cross from one street to another and you’ll find a complete change in socioeconomic status of the residents. Likewise you’ll encounter something cheerful minutes after something unpleasant.
A few Sundays ago, I started walking along Regent’s Canal on my way to Camden, home to my nearest of that wonderful place called Lidl. It was cloudy and I was feeling apathetic. I noticed the litter floating on the water – beer cans, glass bottles and plastic bags chucked in thoughtlessly. I almost got pushed in the murky brown water when a speeding cyclist suddenly dispersed the slow crowd of tourists in front of me with an impatient ring of his bell. A breathless runner grumbled “****in’ hell!” loudly when another tourist didn’t move over sufficiently for him. Then I reached a heaving Camden where I had to wind my way through a mass of people constantly stop-starting to take photos or consult a travel guide. Finally I reached the supermarket and my senses were relaxed by the smell from the bakery section. At the checkout I asked my standard “How are you?” After the girl had replied with a standard “Good, thankyou,” she randomly said “You have really lovely hair by the way.” I felt myself blush with surprised pride and appreciation. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d received a (non-slimy) compliment from a stranger. I walked out of the shop, taking a different route along the backstreets towards the canal, and kept feeling a smile form on the edge of my lips that I couldn’t control. London is so impersonal that it’s surprising when people express their thoughts.
Walking back, the sun came out and I saw a man feeding the ducks. Three oldies were sat down on a bench eating sandwiches and reading books, looking adorably like three old school friends. I stopped to watch the canal lock gates open, admiring a pretty garden across on the other side that I had never noticed before. Further on, the ‘Words on the Water’ boat was playing classical music as people perused its display of books for sale. I smelled fresh flowers as I made my way off the canal path onto my road, feeling like spring was on its way. At this point I realised that I hadn’t noticed the litter on the water again. For 10 minutes or so, the scenes of ugliness ever present had been hidden under a table of sweet treats.
If you come to London really wanting to experience it like a local, don’t carry huge expectations of charm and grandeur with you everywhere you go. It is best to expect an underwhelming welcome, so that you can feel delighted when something nice suddenly happens. If you get drawn into the hype of its stereotype and let yourself assume you are heading to a city full of palaces and poetry you will only be disappointed, because London is just another city with many flaws like the next place. And yet ironically, the unattractive physical features that are distasteful to tourists are perhaps why so many of the native locals love living in central London – this grim reality gives the place a consistent character that they have come to accept as a reflection of their socioeconomic status and therefore something that is their own. The sad fact is that these loyal Londoners will always be subject to those from above wielding their financial and political influence like the contractor wielding his hammer on yet another progressing skyscraper. The ugly, grungy areas that allow locals to afford to live here and pursue the numerous economic opportunities – the benefits of which, like a vicious cycle, mainly seem go back into chasing rather than catching such long-term hopes and dreams of prosperity – will be knocked down and rebuilt into something flashy and vacuous for the approval of foreign cameras and commerce, and those patriotic residents will feel unwelcome yet again.