Back in the mid-1980s, I was travelling on the Tube to go shopping in London’s Oxford Street, dressed like every other 17-year-old from Essex, in that suburban fare of bleached jeans and a yellow tanktop. Sitting opposite me was a black-clad student, wearing Doc Martens and reading James Joyce. I want to be that person, I thought.
Now I’m in my early 50s, I still want to be that person. Which is why, despite the news that a record number of Londoners are fleeing the capital, I can’t wait to swap my IG7 postcode for one that begins with E or N.
According to Hampton’s estate agents, during the first six months of 2021, Londoners bought an estimated 61,380 homes outside the capital, spending £24.1 billion (more than double spent in 2019) in the process. “The pandemic-fuelled outward migration from cities shows no signs of slowing,” said Aneisha Beveridge of Hampton’s. “London’s population is likely to fall this year.”
But if I have anything to do with it, it will be going up by at least one.
I’d been living in London since 1988 when, inspired by my Tube companion, I went to study English at UCL and started reading Plato on the Northern line. But, five years ago, necessity sent me home to suburban Essex. I clung onto an 0208 phone number by the tips of my Chigwell-manicured nails, and found comfort in my just-on-the-Central-line station – despite its unpredictable shuttle service of three trains an hour.
I have to concede that the suburbs provided me with comfortable respite during a dark time in my life: I moved back during a time of illness and encroaching divorce. In this safe and quiet neighbourhood, I have regrouped and recovered.
Essex was also an amazing place to spend lockdown: the fields, the trees and the purr of the wood pigeons in the garden kept me sane. It’s really quite bucolic here. There are even horses at the end of the road.
Too bad I’m allergic to horses.
So as soon as I get that decree absolute, and my share of the proceeds of the marital home, I’ll be heading back to the Big Smoke to fill my lungs with diesel-fuelled air. Of course it’s for the obvious things: the magnificent museums, galleries, theatres – all now coming back to life. That peerless view from Blackfriars bridge: Parliament to the left, St Paul’s and Tower Bridge to the right – it makes me gasp every time.
But for me, it’s as much about the subtle day-to-day encounters. Taxi lights in the rain, the different faces, languages and clothing styles. A plethora of bookshops – not just the understocked one in my current locality. Foods from countries you’ve never heard of. Hot chips on the night bus. Even picking up someone else’s tattered newspaper from the Tube seat at the end of the day. The energy. The history.
Everyone spins out the Samuel Johnson cliché “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”, but the irony is many great poets hated the capital. TS Eliot didn’t enjoy London (though he didn’t enjoy much, to be fair.) In his poem, Burnt Norton, Eliot wrote about “the darkness.. the twittering world” of the underground in the early 1940s. He also wrote of the Tube: “And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen/Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.”
He had clearly been stuck for 10 minutes in that annoying bit between Camden Town and Euston.
Nor was William Blake enamoured of the capital. In his poem, London, he associates it with crying chimney sweepers, hapless soldiers and youthful harlots cursing.
But it’s the ratty-tatty colour of London that speaks to my soul.
Yes, life is cheaper in the suburbs; from trains to hairdressers to dinners out. My friends remind me how expensive London is: for a three-bedroom flat in Muswell Hill, I could get a house in the sticks. “Don’t you want space? A garden?” they wonder. But what on earth for? I find it hard to keep a pot plant alive for more than a couple of days. When our family home had a small garden, I never felt moved to mow the postage stamp-sized lawn.
Of course I’m not blind to the appeal of the rest of the UK, and I do love to visit. We live in a glorious country of dales and hills and rugged coastlines. But the sea air gets a bit sticky in your hair after a while, and the countryside makes me itch. Those inky dark nights freak me out – I love the comforting orangey light pollution.
Most importantly, as much as I need London, London needs me – and more people like me. Walking around the city makes me sad these days: it’s just so empty: shuttered shops and mournfully empty coffee bars, as Londoners move out and the office workers stay home on Zoom. Analysis last summer from Visit Britain showed that London was set to lose £11 billion in tourism, and that commuters spent £1.9 billion less in the city than in the previous year.
So, come the autumn, I’ll be heading back. And so I’ll finish with the lesser-known part of the Samuel Johnson quote about our fabulous capital city. “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London,” he trumpets. “For there is in London all that life can afford.”
With a season-ticket loan, perhaps.