A few weeks ago, I was making my way back to the Midlands from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk by public transport. This being England, though Birmingham and Southwold are on roughly the same latitude, the trip entailed a massive southerly detour of several hundred miles via Liverpool Street, the District Line and Euston. As I was wandering through the concourse, my day got appreciably worse when I was greeted with the sight and sound of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, scoldingly reminding us that the Olympics were upon us and that we should all be planning our daily movements carefully and sensibly. He stopped short of asking if our journey was absolutely necessary but the Second World War resonance was there. Up to a point, anyway. It was a kind of life-during-wartime address but from Bagpuss rather than Winston Churchill.
What struck me more than anything else was how little I had in common with “my” capital city, how utterly apart from it I felt. I felt a much stronger kinship with the Milanese and the Florentine sipping their caffè corretto, the Bostonian at the coffee counter, the Bilbaoan with his churros, all watching the TV in the corner of the bar, shaking their head and chuckling at Boris and G4S and the triteness of it all.
I know many people who do not exactly want the Olympics to fail but would like to see London get taken down a peg or two. This is petty, insular and reeks of Schadenfreude but, hey, London started it. Let me say first that sometimes I love London. I still think that Wordsworth was just plain wrong to say that “earth has not anything to show more fair” than the view from Westminster Bridge (he lived in the Lake District, for God’s sake) but I take his point. The other night, as I walked across the river from the Poetry Parnassus event on the South Bank, I was thrilled by the lights of the West End and the buzz of the Saturday night around me. It had been a great event, too, organised by one of our finest poets, Simon Armitage. He lives in Huddersfield.
Huddersfield has been at the centre of poetic life in England for some time, thanks to Simon, Peter Sansom’s Poetry Business and the lodestone of Ted Hughes. It also brings musicians from all over the world to its Contemporary Music Festival each year, the greatest showcase for avant-garde and experimental music in the world. Yet I know that the only time I will ever hear the town mentioned in the media is in some passing, slighting reference in a dire “satire” show when they want a synonym for provincial gormlessness.
My heart has noticeably hardened against London this past year and for reasons that are not entirely that grand old city’s fault. You may have noticed that the BBC has moved some of its operations to a new, state-of-the-art complex by the Ship Canal in Salford. I work there every day and I love it. I love the light and the water, the facilities, the campus-like feel of the place. MediaCityUK (the name is the worst thing about it) has also given some of our more tiresome columnists an easy, reliable subject in those weeks when they can’t get away with yet another sneering piece about restaurant service or caravans. Here’s the very worst from one Giles Coren:
A few weeks ago a mate of mine got home to London two hours late because someone was shot dead literally outside the door of his studio. And so I am torn between love and duty, as I was last week when, in order to talk about my book on BBC Breakfast, I had to go up the night before . . . because there are no trains early enough from London to travel there on the day . . . So I was forging a path into the wild (north) west. Opening a trail. One man against the wilderness.
Just what is it that makes this so nauseating? Is it the whingeing about trains and scaremongering about shootings? Or is it the unctuous metropolitan bellyaching? Whatever, I think any reasonable person would think the whole MediaCityUK site a bargain even if its sole purpose were to screw up Coren’s day.
Though they are nothing like this odious about it, my London friends often used to tell me how if they left London for the “provinces” they’d miss the culture. In the past week or so, I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine and hung out at an early-evening poetry session in Manchester hosted by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy (who lives in Chorlton), heard a lunch - time recital of modern European chamber music at the Royal Northern College of Music, watched Maxine Peake in Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange and seen an anniversary screening of A Taste of Honey at the Cornerhouse, where a cast member, Murray Melvin, spoke warmly of Joan Littlewood and old-fashioned Marxism. During my working week in Manchester (and, by extension, in Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds), I spend my evenings at concerts, gigs, exhibitions, readings, talks, walks, sporting events and lectures, or just hanging out in great bars and restaurants, while I suspect most of my London friends are slumped slack-jawed on the sofa in front of Wallander with a plate of M&S lasagne, having spent two hours getting from the office to an overpriced flat in Lewisham. The myth has been busted. You’re not at the Almeida or the Cottesloe. You’re not at a glitch techno juice bar in Shoreditch. You’re not discussing art in a Dean Street pub over oysters and gin. You’re not living like Francis Bacon. You’re not even living like Richard Bacon. The game is up.
When you are tired of London, you are tired of life, said Dr Johnson, a Lichfield lad who moved south for the work. Well, maybe not, Sam. You may just be tired of its banality, its bullying sense of entitlement (we couldn’t give a toss about Television Centre or Routemaster buses, actually), the way it squats on our lives like Larkin’s toad. Another great poet – from Coventry, by way of Hull. No, when you’re tired of London, you are probably just tired of London.
Stuart Maconie’s “Freak Zone” is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 8pm)