I’ve been moping about recently, telling anyone who will listen how great London is, now that I no longer live there. I got on the train to see friends the other day, and walked past our old flat in Highbury, pushing the pram and thinking about those nights a year ago, when I’d come back from work and we’d walk to the Castle, climb some routes with friends, and go drink a few ciders and have a burger at the Brownswood.
I was expecting to feel all nostalgic, being back in the buzzing vibrant heart of the country, but I wasn’t. Each part of London I’ve lived in has memories for me, and I have always wandered around reminiscing as I pass streets or buildings where I lived or worked, but I’ve done that for the last ten years. Even walking down Streatham High Road in the summer was a little trip down memory lane, but only in the sense that I took pleasure in remembering what it felt like to be 24, jogging around those grim streets with an agility that erodes over time. I miss the life I had when we lived in West Hampstead, with Hampstead Heath within walking distance, the Overground connecting me to Richmond, and the Jubilee Line taking me straight out to any cultural event I might want to attend. The slight snag in this image of cosmopolitan life is that what I actually picture in my reminiscences is not the Royal Opera House, it is the inside of our lovely top floor flat. I liked it so much that I would take great pleasure in staying in on a Saturday night, relieved that no one had invited me out anywhere, and writing my blog with my computer in my lap and toast for dinner. Since I now have a study, and live in an 18th century house with a garden, it is progress. After all, our new town of Milton Keynes is a mecca of the cutting edge, if you like all edges to be straight and concrete.
The things I really miss (apart from all my friends, my job, the parks, theatre, ballet, and basically my whole life) are just the comforts of any city, or even town centre living; being able to step outside and walk to a café or a news agent, rather than getting in the car and finding the change for the parking meter.
So here is a list of the things that are not so great about London.
Queuing for cash machines
Getting cash was always a hassle. Either the only machine in a five-mile radius charged £1.75 for withdrawals (usually in very poor areas, which I always found ironically cruel), or there was only one machine working and ten people were trying to arrange themselves on the pavement. I’ve lived in Milton Keynes for three months now, and I don’t think I’ve queued for a cash machine one single time. This may also be because I almost never get any cash out. I don’t need much cash, as there’s nowhere to buy a passing coffee or a newspaper, I never eat out and I very rarely go to pubs, although we live right next to one.
One of the things I look forward to every spring is finally getting out of socks, and into my flip-flops or sandals. I generally spend the whole summer in some sort of open shoe, mainly because it helps a lot with the chronic athlete’s foot I used to get every time I went to a London gym or climbing wall (well, that’s my excuse anyway, even if I slightly suspect I’ve actually been spreading it single-handedly across the capital). When I wear open shoes in London, I come home and have to wash great slews of black grime off my feet. Sometimes, I would get drunk and go to bed without washing my feet, so I’d have to change the bedsheets the next day. I don’t miss that at all.
The thing that supposedly makes London so vibrant is that everyone flocks to it seeking to make fame and fortune. An awful lot of them do, either because they are already rich anyway (and money always makes money), or because anyone bold enough to turn up on the off chance that it’ll work out is probably enterprising enough to make money. The big downside of all this is that the whole place is increasingly populated not by people who actually make their life there, but by people who showcase their life while they mostly live somewhere else in the world. They prop up the insane property prices, frequent restaurants that swiftly become outrageously expensive, and make it seem somehow essential to be spending hundreds of pounds on personal grooming or a wine collection. So if you’re a nice ordinary Oxbridge graduate, who has an interesting job and quite enough money to rent a nice place in Zone 2, you suddenly don’t feel as if you’re in the 99th percentile of the population on almost every measure, but as if you have somehow missed the memo. I can only imagine what it feels like if you live in London with no money at all, but I think the riots gave us a pretty good idea.
Admittedly, traffic jams are hardly unique to London, and perhaps comparing the traffic in a planned city with the huge unplanned sprawl of inefficient street layouts is unfair. I still don’t miss them though. The fact that I can drive straight onto the M1, and be in the north of the country within two hours, is a novelty that won’t wear off for quite a while.
I loved cycling in London, in much the same way that I love leaning over balconies, climbing, driving too fast and other silly ideas. It is dangerous if you don’t anticipate every possible outcome at every turn, and of course you can also have the bad luck of being hit from behind. The ghost bikes always depressed me, making me think that maybe I shouldn’t be cycling down Old Street after all. If was having a bad day it would generally make me think even more about worst case scenarios in life, and sometimes I would google the accident that led to the ghost bike. It was always easy to find the details of the person who died, and since the most poignant stories were also the ones that made the most column inches, I’d be in tears about whatever young person’s highly promising life had been cut short.
Milton Keynes has a huge network of off-road cycle paths called Redways, which mean that I can take my kids cycling without worrying they’ll be killed.
I actually have mixed feelings about the London Underground. Its imagery is so ubiquitous and iconic that it’s like the white noise of my life for the last ten years – reassuring in its familiarity, even if very dull indeed when I was on it. It was tiring, dirty, full of strange characters and drunk people, baking hot in summer, and prone to horrific delays. It was very varying though; living on the Northern Line was miserable, but living on the Bakerloo line was quite refreshing. It was one of the oldest lines, and many of the northern stations retained all their 1920s features. It opened up such a huge range of possibilities in terms of places to go; you could look at the map and run through in your head what you might want to do with your day. I think the bit I don’t miss is rush hour, and weekends, when all the tourists would get on and stand in the doorway/get on before anyone got off/stand on the left of the escalator/stand at the bottom of the escalator looking confused.
Minimal eye contact
I do know that it’s normal to make eye contact when engaging in incidental exchanges with shop assistants anywhere outside London. It is also quite nice both to give and to receive eye contact. It’s just taking quite a lot of getting used to. The checkout guy at Sainsbury’s beamed at me the other day, said something innocuous about shopping bags, and I was instantly desperate to get away from him. I had to engage in this exchange about nothing in particular, while looking him in the eye, all the while fighting a rising panic that he would turn into a total weirdo and say something creepy, which he didn’t. So I don’t exactly miss the total absence of human interaction that is normal in London, but I’m also super-awkward about every little chat. Nervous laughter and shuffling feet creep in as soon as the exchange lasts longer than two sentences. One to work on.
Now that I don’t live there, I’ll probably actually do and see some of the stuff that I could never be bothered to do when it was on my doorstep.
- The best places to go trick or treating at Hallowe’en (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- MIND THE GAP: Everything You Need to Know About Saving Money on London’s Public Transport (thrifttripping.wordpress.com)