Not so long ago, I woke up in my mother-in-law’s house in Exeter to a blizzard of missed calls and voicemails. It turned out that my house in London had been burgled. We rushed home, taking a mere six and a half hours because the A303 and M5 were both up the spout.
I spent the next few days thinking that maybe this city, which made me proud to call myself a Londoner before I am an Englishman, Brit or citizen of nowhere, wasn’t the place I’d call home forever after all.
I know how twee this sounds. Very fortunate balding Indian in his thirties, with young son and career in the creative industries, recently found installing crowbar-proof windows, becomes latest numpty to audition for Escape to the Country. I know, too, how tedious the arguments against our metropolis are. While others have caterwauled about the price of housing and loss of neighbourliness, I’ve said instead: don’t you know this is the price of success?
The very thing that makes London so dizzying and unique – its total embrace of liberty, its riotous offering of culture and humanity in all known forms, its economic chutzpah – comes with costs attached.
The most shameful thing about London has always been its juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty: that historic resistance to inclusive growth. This aspect of our capital, partly a function of our planning laws, remains a gaping wound in the body of Britain.
I almost used to forgive it. Now I don’t. In coming round to a different view I am influenced by David Brooks of the New York Times. In December 2010, Brooks argued that a decisive demographic trend of the 20th century would be the emergence of a global middle class. For the US to win the 21st century (a diminishing prospect), it would have to provide for middle-class lives like no other country on earth.
How does London fare on this front? According to Brooks, “To be middle class is to have money to spend on non-necessities”. By this measure, I am comfortably middle class, having once been in a lower category. But there is a cultural as well as economic aspect to it, which when I was growing up would have included having a certain size of house, ready access to excellent schools, and living relatively free of crime.
Economically, I am probably in the most fortunate 0.0000001 per cent of those who ever lived. Yet as I and my peers contemplate the frankly insufficient state school options, living (if we’re lucky) in houses an ugly multiple of our salaries, negotiating with burglars, reading about a knife crime surge, and waiting for this range of garden cities to emerge, we start to wonder.
And when, last Sunday, I was sitting outside the Turf pub, on the west bank of the Exe estuary, I thought maybe Devon has a better answer. We got the ferry from Topsham, just outside Exeter, from where my wife hails. Exeter’s university is powering its expansion. There is classic town vs gown friction, but young dynamism and talent is super-charging this city. There are good state schools and transport links, houses are affordable and crime is under control.
Why don’t we all move there? The answer, in our case, is because family ties, friendships and work all count against it. Yet the balance is tipping. I love London, but in making economics rather than human flourishing its ultimate goal – and of course the two are related – it is losing its people and its soul. Our capital is in danger of becoming an arena of demographic churn that submits each decision about its future to the same question: is it good economics? The coming transformation of its skyline will exemplify this, especially if it forms a spiky crust over a capital inhabited by a global super-rich and a desperate precariat.
Don’t worry, I know the Samuel Johnson quote about “no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London”. Mr Johnson died in 1784. It is precisely because the capital is today less hospitable to his kind that Exeter is growing on me.
This article appears in the 10 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran