Cycling through London's "neo-Victorian boom"

..and realising it's time to leave.

“Neo-Victorian boom.” An expression that started to appear around a year ago is becoming something of a feature in writing about the city of London. The FT have gushed about “the world's leading city” as if it were an official contest or accolade, a recent issue of the Economist showed London at dusk, above a headline of “precarious brilliance". So long as the Olympics go off without too many G4S-style glitches, it’s hard to imagine them not strengthening the modern myth that London is developing for itself. Neo-Victorian boom. Apparently.

Look a little closer and all is not so well. In ever more bars, cafes and clubs you find increasingly stern advice to watch your belongings and use the bag hooks… thieves, it would seem, are operating in more and more areas of a city with the highest rate of wealth inequality in the developed world. Boris Johnson, newly returned as Mayor by only 15 per cent of the total electorate, was last month tending to self-promotion in New York, loudly repeating his old pledge that London will not be sterilised. As still more private sector developments lay claim to public space, each with a now-familiar range of prefabricated franchises, Johnson seems to have confused an opposition to sterilisation with affection for London’s stunning inequality.

In all this, there’s an awful lot of newspeak to cut through for those who want the truth. The now well-heeled borough of Hackney was recently celebrating a reduced rate of poverty amongst its residents. The town hall is quieter about the likelihood that this has been caused by a displacement of poor residents who can no longer afford to live in the borough. Across the city the boast of “recession proof” continues to linger like a bad smell. London property prices have indeed remained buoyant, but it’s a moot point that a 7 per cent climb in areas like Marylebone have been enough to bury the stutters in the likes of Dagenham and Romford, London’s emerging banlieu.

The Shard has become a newly popular metaphor for this gulf. London’s latest tallest building waits impatiently for its insides to be wired up, towering over the once low-profile south bank as it does so. Qatari-owned, the Shard has come to represent not only the brash arrogance of the financial sector, but also a tendency towards a city owned by those far away, people whose only concern for London is as an enduring cash cow. The most telling thing, in both name and design, is that the Shard seems remarkably comfortable in appearing outwardly mean. Cycle safety campaigners have highlighted the staggering rate of casualties caused by the Shard’s endless construction traffic, Simon Jenkins fumed that the Shard "has slashed the face of London for ever.'' Mercifully… “forever” is a long time, as is evident in the crumbling ruins of London Wall, the last Roman infrastructure project, completed in the second century to hem-in the city. The wall's ivy-strewn remains are a heart warming evidence that empires bigger than the Qataris have come and gone, together with their monuments... but still… it’s worrying when you have to find comfort through such a long view of history.

In short… and what I’ve been meaning to say all along… is that that it’s time for me to leave. I’ve always traveled by bicycle… around London, around the world, and a handful of times across Europe. It’s across Europe that I’m escaping this time, a ride of some 2500 miles to Istanbul, a route that I last took as a new graduate five years ago. With a financial crisis and a eurozone crisis separating now from then, I’ll go back to my familiar politics by bicycle, slow travel through nations that still wait to either enter or exit the European club, or who try to beat a new path inside of it. As the UK’s attention turns from Leveson and a corrupt media, and looks anew at Libor, HSBC, and a corrupt banking system, I pack my panniers and pump up my tyres, and return to watching Europe from the vantage point of a beat-up, leather saddle.

This article first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.