Thirty years ago, I loved London. I loved the energy and vibrancy of the beating heart of the capital, which even back then never seemed to sleep. I felt the excitement of being young and alive, and for the first time to be able to explore its mysterious tubes and streets on my own. The evocative sights and smells of Carnaby Street in the 1980’s, the forbidden clubs and mysterious shops of Soho, places where youngsters like me dared not venture. The landmarks of the day, The Post Office and Euston Tower, the clutch of excitement experienced as you caught a first glimpse of them as you headed into town on the Metropolitan Line. The music of the day invigorated me, I loved the Pet Shop Boys and their camp electro pop. Very different I thought, to the mournful Mancunian meanderings of northern bands like the Smiths. Live Aid, Wembley 1985. At the tender age of seventeen I couldn’t afford a ticket, but more than anything I wanted to be there. In London mind you, not Philadelphia. The whole place and culture made me feel like I belonged.
A first night out in the west end to celebrate a friend passing her driving test, five of us crammed into a vintage Morris 1100 all dolled up for a night on the town. We visited the Video Café, way ahead of its time with its wall to wall big screens, blaring pop music and glamorous hostesses. Even in the side streets behind the venue, the boxes of rubbish and empty bottles spilling out of restaurant bins looked and smelled exotic.
I remember buying a new winter coat from Top Shop on Oxford Street, prior to heading north to University. It was electric blue, bat winged and warm enough (or so I thought) to get me through the coldest of days in London. A few weeks into the term I rang my Mum to inform her I’d had to purchase another coat, a sturdy hooded anorak, as my electric blue fashion statement wasn’t quite cutting the mustard amongst the rain, mud, and cold of North Staffordshire in November.
I can’t seem to pinpoint the exact moment that the rot began to set in. Not when I lived down there, certainly.
By 1996 I was living near Birmingham, when a change in circumstances necessitated a change of location. I had three options, to stay where I was and didn’t really know anyone, or to move up to North Staffordshire to rent a house with my brother. The third option was a return to London, to live with my parents. For some reason this course of action was not given the consideration it perhaps deserved.
In central London now, all I see is grime and disappointment. Seedy massage parlours cheek by jowl with trendy ‘old fashioned’ drinking establishments, rammed with hipsters and after work city types. No one speaks to you, no one looks at you. On the tube, in the pub, in the shops, anywhere and nowhere. In the suburbs where I grew up things look familiar of course, and happily there is still family to visit, but I feel like a tourist, no longer do I feel I belong on those streets.
I don’t think I’ve changed that much in thirty years, so why have I such a healthy dislike for a place of which I was once so fond ? I think possibly it’s because I’ve not so much changed as grown up. London seems to be a city for young people, not middle aged ones with a slightly grumpy outlook on life. I will continue to visit the place for as long as I have friends and family there of course, but a slightly selfish inner voice mutters to me that it wishes they’d move somewhere, well a little more salubrious.
A friend who migrated from Milton Keynes to Whitehaven in Cumbria a couple of years ago has pretty much nailed it. She says ‘I have concluded that London is for the young, the ambitious or the insane.’
I think that living away from London in ‘the provinces’ might have also coloured my judgement somewhat. It certainly seems now as though few of the edicts issued by a London based parliament have much benefit for areas far distant from London and the south east. Pre-election spin about the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ seems to have quietly faded away. Recent decisions made at Westminster for trains not to stop at Stoke, on the proposed HS2 route through the potteries seems to back up this suspicion. An area which has never recovered from the loss of its mining and pottery industries has lost out on a potential economic lifeline, almost certainly to its detriment. I’ve also witnessed first-hand the devastation caused to local communities by the recent catastrophic flooding in Cumbria. It’s set me wondering that if had these floods had happened in or around London, whether the infrastructure might not have been fixed a tad more quickly. I could go on about this, but just thinking about it gives me a deep sense of unease.
Londoners themselves don’t really help. Even some of my ‘London’ friends seem to have an inexplicable air of superiority about where they live, as though it’s somehow better than everywhere else. I’ve even asked some if they’d ever consider moving away, and the answer is invariably that they’d relocate at the drop of a hat, but they couldn’t possibly do it, as how on earth would one manage on a provincial salary ? This seems odd, given that if they were brave enough to give up their modest London abodes they could afford veritable mansions by northern standards. For me though, it’s about quality of life, not cold hard cash. It’s about the fact that I can walk 30 minutes from my front door to a high green place, where the skylarks trill in the blue above, and the rolling Staffordshire countryside is spread out like a richly coloured tapestry before me. I’ve tried, but I’ve yet to replicate that feeling anywhere in London.
I do still have a favourite place down there though, somewhere I can spend all day on my own and lose myself in its history and atmosphere. It’s not often these days that I get the opportunity to visit, but I always look forward to the chance to once again walk through its terracotta galleries to visit old friends, and to be enticed by new exhibitions and displays.