Dictionary dude Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man tires of London, he’s tired of life, writes Clive Martin for vice.com. You might have heard a cabbie who now lives in Essex relay that snippet to you. What the pocket-wisdom smartarses who quote that to you every time you complain about airborne death particles and cashpoints that charge you £2 to access your own money don’t realise, is that while Johnson was a clever guy, he spent his life afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome. Which means your man probably spent as much time spouting involuntary bullshit as he did snappy witticisms.
The thing is, most people in London are tired of life. You’ve only got to witness the queues in the Westfield multi-storey or the reaction to a crying baby on the tube to realise that this is a city which exists permanently at the end of its tether. People can live in London and be simultaneously tired of it, because – unlike in Mr Johnson’s time – London is no longer a few cobbled streets and a big old prison. It’s the last metropolis in a sinking country on a starving continent, an island within an island oozing out into the Home Counties like an unstoppable concrete oil spill.
I grew up in this city, as did my parents and my grandparents. It can be a great place to live – and, to be honest, I’m probably completely incapable of living anywhere else. There are plenty of reasons why one in ten people decide to make one of its 32 boroughs their home, but there are also plenty of reasons why people give up on life and move away to the middle-class creche that is Brighton.
Reasons like these.
Somewhere along the line, London’s publicans decided that they weren’t happy with their lot. They decided they weren’t just there to provide sanctuary to people whose home lives were so grim they’d rather pay more money to drink less alcohol in a dank room full of deranged cirrhosis sufferers. The landlords decided they wanted to educate their clientele. They wanted them to learn about artisan bar snacks and cask ales, to fill their nostrils with the smell of food they couldn’t afford and to watch them play children’s board games as they sipped their £4.50 Czech rainwater pints.
At first, these places only existed in places like Muswell Hill and Sheen, but now even those pubs you see built into council estate blocks sell sandwiches prefixed with the word “posh”. Wetherspoons get a bad rep for their wipe-down decor, microwave eggs and Grey Rage glassings, but at least you don’t need a tertiary income to get pissed in them.
West End scum
Wonder why nobody goes out in the West End any more? Maybe because, every weekend, the area between the BT Tower, the neon TDK sign, Hyde Park and Centre Point turns into a Boschian wanker factory. Actually, maybe that’s unfair. It doesn’t produce them so much as it attracts them – spend early evening in the outer boroughs and you’ll see them closing in on their target: rapey dudes in bootcut jeans getting angry because unlit cabs won’t stop for them, pink Hummers shuttling squawking women along the Seven Sisters Road, men from Canary Wharf with faces as orange as the National Rail returns tucked in their wallets.
The game is up for Zone 1; soon it will exist only as a nucleus of tourist hell, the city will become defined by its sprawl and the heart of it will be like Centre Parcs, but with less wholesome family bike rides and more pay-per-hour Gumtree day brothels.
There’s barely a trope of olde-worlde London that hasn’t been co-opted by the type of dickhead who subscribes to The Chap and spent all summer moaning about the Shard on Facebook. London’s got a grim and rich history to it, and bit by bit, every part of that’s being sold from an unfurnished shop in “Stokey” to new dads who dress like CBBC presenters and ex-pat Melbournites with antiquity envy. We’ve already had moustache waxing, ballroom dancing, opium (probably) and door frames, so I guess, if you’re a prick, you can look forward to getting cholera, air raids and a 48-hour shift in a child peasant workhouse for Christmas.
A chief symptom of this pandemic of quaint bullshit is the cupcake, a foodstuff that doubles as the most innocuous signifier of ingrained racism yet devised by man. Who actually likes cupcakes, anyway? They’re the sort of thing you eat half of at a village fete before feeding to a dog.
Despite what house prices and official Met Police statistics will tell you, Thamesmead and Edmonton are not the worst places in London. The worst place in London is Clapham. What’s so bad about leafy, affluent Clapham, you ask? Well, mostly the people. Which might sound unfair, but probably only if you’ve never spent a terrifying Saturday morning watching Millwall fans fight over the last bath salts behind Clapham Junction station. Or a Saturday afternoon watching American city boys play ultimate frisbee on the common. Or a Saturday evening watching an endless succession of sneering Australian gym-freaks trying to chirpse your girlfriend.
Yeah, don’t go to Clapham, it really doesn’t matter how good the Slug & Lettuce is if you feel like you’re trapped in a kind of Grand Guignol Peep Show.
In life, there are two types of people. People who do something, take it as being just a necessary part of their existence and get on with their lives, and people who define themselves by what they do. This is the difference between people who eat food and “foodies”, people who have blogs and “bloggers” and, most extremely, perhaps, people who ride bikes and “cyclists”.
I have no problem with cycling to work. It’s good exercise, I get to see parts of the city I wouldn’t see from buses or tubes and it makes me feel like slightly less of a spoilt, planet-choking dickhead. But I don’t then explode that dim glow of self-respect into a towering forest fire of self-righteousness.
That said, there are other users of self-powered transport who are worse. Like graphic designers who spend their days posting hilarious Nathan Barley jokes in our comments section then riding around the “Silicon Roundabout” on micro-scooters, or those people who choose to spend their Friday nights parading through the streets on party bikes having “Wankers!” shouted at them. Though it is funny when that happens and you can watch the enraged beta males on board glower furiously as they disappear into the distance, steered off and away by the steam of the oblivious, chortling collective.
There’s a breed of Londoner (almost none of them originally from London, weirdly) who seems to think that the city is one big IRL RPG that they can only navigate with a Time Out “hidden gems” map. The amount of times I’ve stumbled away from the rubble of a house party, desperate for caffeine, protein and some kind of orange liquid to sate my hell-over, only to find myself confronted with “You’ve not been to Cafe Oto? You must! The gammon kedgeree is to die for.” Motherfucker, I just want something that’s hot and doesn’t taste like MDMA, I’m not interested in what blog-glorified greasy spoon you’re trying to impress me with.
The South Bank
Sure, there are some nice views of places that you might have seen in Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond films, but really, the South Bank should be left to tourists and Britain’s Got Talent quarter finalists. It’s a Richard-Curtis-at-Epcot idea of what London actually is, a gentrified, diluted, over-planned idea of a city that, in reality, is defined most by its constant, seething flux. It feels like a model village of London made by a provincial gardener who’s never actually been there – sure, the Tate Modern, BFI, Royal Festival Hall, etc, are all great institutions, but there are also pubs frequented exclusively by people who like rugby and hundreds of kiosks that’ll charge you £2.50 for a warm can of Fanta.
There are two great media-crimes of the early 21st century. One is the Leveson scandal, the other is the perpetuation of the myth that cabaret and burlesque are anything other than utter shit. A finer writer than me once described burlesque as “stripping with A-levels”, and I couldn’t agree more. Yep, I’m sure you think it’s empowering, I’m sure you have some patronising half-ideas about “real women”, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that what you do fucking sucks.
Not only is it lame, it’s also dishonest. For some reason London has become the epicentre for this nonsense; Time Out has a cabaret section and BBC London News feel the need to do a feature on every ex-lecturer that’s clambered into a giant Martini glass. At least the creeps at Spearmint Rhino are under no illusions about what they’re there for. Leave it at the Edinburgh Festival, guys.
Yeah, it’s easy to pick on tourists, but really, they are the forefathers of all this suckiness. And I’m not being xenophobic here, families from Rotherham (the ticket gates are open, just go through!) are probably even worse than the people who’ve come from abroad because they’re more complicit. They are the people who stand on the wrong side of the escalator, the people who were first prepared to pay over £4 for a pint, the people who go to see Spamalot, the people who justify the monarchy in a 21st century democratic society.
They are the originators of the fresh hell laid out above, the instigators, the Oppenheimers. They are everywhere and they are nowhere, faceless ghost armies in red backpacks that exist only as a wandering stereotype, a folk devil for full-time Londoners to pin their gripes upon. They are gone as soon as they appear, yet their happy-to-pay attitude sends the rest of us off to sleep at night fretting about the morning’s unboiled shower and the bailiff’s door-destroying boot.
Speaking of which…
The perpetual state of bankruptcy
Average Central London 1 bedroom flat rent: £495 (pw)
Average Central London pint price: £3.50
Average price of a meal for two (inc. wine): £40
Non-Oyster Card single bus fare: £2.40
Odeon Leicester Square single adult ticket: £13
Still, I guess that’s just the price you have to pay for not living in Skipton.