Living in London: The City of Contrasts

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.

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 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.

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9 thoughts on “Living in London: The City of Contrasts

  1. Really good post. I lived in London many years ago and suffered from extreme loneliness. Nw I lve in Athens, Greece – and it’s like a large town as opposed to a city. People in my central neighbourhood greet each other, I know my neighbours – hell, some even cook me spinach pie!
    And as a teacher of English here, I CERTAINLY see a difference: people aren’t afraid of the youth. In fact, you will more often than not see young and old socialising all together – there is not that segregation, ie: “I can’t go in there, I’m too young/old for that place.”
    Having said that, it’s interesting to note how just one nice act (that girl in the bakers) can change your outlook. I think we should all practise saying/doing at least one nice thing for someone a day, regardless of whether we’re looked at as aliens. It’ll make us feel better and who knows? It might make someone’s day.

    • Thanks for reading, Rebecca. I can imagine Greece is the complete opposite (especially after reading your post about Anafiotoka!) I’ve travelled to the Greek islands a few times with my family and the lifestyle is so friendly and relaxed there. I agree! I always smile and say “Hello” to my bus driver and when I see tourists looking at a map, I’ve started going over to ask if they’d like help. I’m originally from the Northern countryside though, which is noted for having more welcoming residents;) Home-grown Londoners have perhaps known no different and unfortunately, tend to just get trapped in the selfish, competitive, money-orientated bubble!

  2. Darling in principal i agree but then i read you have lived here now 2 months (total how long?:) and i realise to people who like myself have lived here 10years plus you most probably seem… like a tourist :)) sorry.. but in principal i agree 🙂 shame : i always say in London there is 8 m people and 6 m of them feel lonely instead of talking to one another.. i tried to change it and be kind helpful and all and after 10 years plus it starts really killing you if you see what i mean..

  3. Bear in mind that i had some quite sad experiences here and so my view of it may be shadowed by it; As they say if you expect sad you ll get sad, so i do think London can be great and amazing too; it does depend sometimes perhaps on what we expect of it (and my expectations may be shadowed by my experiences but i m trying to change that 🙂 and expect the BEST 🙂

    • Thanks for reading. I have lived here a total of 3 and a half years, which I completely appreciate is nothing compared to some people. But I have lived in other areas of the country and visited other cities in the world where the atmosphere is so much more friendly and welcoming, and it’s a shame the same can’t be said about London. I made the point about being back for just two months to emphasise how quickly London’s faults became apparent, after spending some time away. But like you say, that could be because I was expecting not to enjoy it…I have no regrets about choosing to study here, but I can’t wait to get out!

      • i know exactly how you feel….. 3.5 years makes you a Londoner 🙂
        a ‘friend’ who kept promising me a room with a piano i need for months just informed me it s not available now, again this city proves to me it any moment you give it your heart you get punched in the face as a reward.. so i may be gone too 🙂 all best and thanks for sharing! do pop in to one of my show and say hi in person one day 🙂

  4. Such an interesting post. I’ve lived in London for over 6 years now – and both love it and hate it. I’m not sure which emotion wins. It changes a lot.

    I’ve lived in a number of different places in London – north (very close to where you are from the sounds of it!), south… and then even further south, nearly in Surrey. And my husband and I were never particularly happy anywhere. We never felt ‘at home’. By the time I got to work, I was stressed and angry from my generally horrendous commutes and after work, I was usually too tired to go out and enjoy myself. We had dreams of living an amazing life in London – and it really wasn’t what we expected.

    Over the past few years, I have lowered my expectations and as you have done, I started to look for the good in the city. I’ve found places that I love to go – a small tea shop in Soho, the London Wetlands Centre, early morning walks around Richmond Park and Hampstead Heath. We have started seeking out social enterprises, which are helping address some of the underlying problems in London. I’ve also started looking for the good in people. Amongst the angry commuters, the hoards of tourists and the youths hanging on street corners, there are some people that still some people that restore your faith – I just didn’t always notice them before. And I try to be one of those good people – I smile at people on the tube, help people with their buggies, help a tourist if they look lost. I want to be one of the people that makes other people smile.

    At the moment, I like London again. But maybe that’s because we have spent quite a lot of time away from it recently. I’m sure this time next year, I will have changed my mind again!

    I think deep down, I’m a small town country girl, trapped in a big city! One day, I might have my dream cottage in the middle of nowhere. But for now, I’m just going to have to keep hunting for an extortionately priced 1 bedroom flat somewhere in Zone 5!!

    • Thanks Karianne, it sounds like we share the same outlook! I am definitely a country girl at heart too and I’m glad that London has not changed that like it can in some people. Richmond Park ❤ (Have you seen the 'Fenton' video??) Yeahh approaching tourists to offer help leaves you with a really nice feeling. Like you say, a short time away can make you miss London slightly, but that's perhaps because few cities around the UK seem to offer the opportunities that it does. We're pulled back here because there is more to offer in terms of jobs and cultural resources, but it comes at a price (both literally and mentally!)

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