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21 February 2023

Can you ever escape from London? I doubt it

Tiring of the city really is the same thing as tiring of life.

By Clive Martin

Of all the broadsheet column clichés, there can’t be many more established than “I moved out of London and discovered the simple life”, with “I moved out of London and despised it” emerging as its younger, hate-bait sibling. It’s the subject of many a hackneyed op-ed from the Observer to the Express, and a source of eternal fascination for their readers. An 800-word glimpse of a different life, so near but so far.

However, it’s a cliché that I lived: the urban media worker who ran away (and came back). Almost four years ago to the day, work and life conspired to take me to a bourgeois corner of the West Country. A place with lifeboats, yoga studios, fine art students and a dwindling fishing industry. The kind of town that has metropolitan couples in Rains jackets staring longingly into estate agents’ windows.

For a while I was evangelical about the uprooting. I was enamoured with all that space, time and fresh air – thrilled that the chances of running into my line manager in a barren Tesco Express had been reduced to somewhere around absolute zero. I swore to myself that I would never sit on a steamy bus crawling down Upper Street in Islington ever again. I was, perhaps, a bit smug about it all. 

Then circumstances changed and I was thrown back into the light and heat of the city. I didn’t have much of a choice. I grew up in the outer boroughs of London and, despite my best efforts, most of my life remained in the city: my friends, my employers, my habits, maybe even my soul. The fact that I had failed to make a single friend in my entire time away (beyond friendly terms with my barber and downstairs neighbour) condemned me to a return. 

I had mixed feelings about this. London is the place I came of age, conquered several times over and eventually came to loathe. Yet there was plenty dragging me back: the pubs, the lore, the grand old cinemas, the cockneys and the chaos. I longed for restaurants where you could get a bowl of something hot and wet for a tenner, for Paul Schrader retrospectives and Chinese supermarkets. 

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[See also: The need to grow London’s EV infrastructure at speed and scale]

England is a small country really, and I was never away long enough to become truly unanchored from its capital. The habits and attitudes I built there over 30 years would never quite leave me. As Brian Cox says to his fleeing son in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour: “You got New York in your bones.” Yet my weekend visits were not enough for me to quite understand the changes it had undergone while I was away. For that, you need the clarity of vision that only a resident, a native could have.

Pre-pandemic, the London I left was moving in disturbing directions. These were the days of mass club closures, the cereal café twins, the Nour Brixton controversy, the razing of Elephant & Castle shopping centre and so on. Part of the reason I became so alienated from London in the first place was because it felt as if everything I loved was under permanent, roving threat. I’d find a spot I liked one week and the next I’d pick up the Hackney Gazette and find out it was about to become a WeWork. That didn’t feel like city living, it felt like city surviving.

Now, back in the thick of it, I found, as always, that the city was being reimagined by the day – but also that people were applying ever more imaginative ways of resisting that, as if everyone I knew had joined some kind of anti-gentrification sleeper cell. When I left I thought I was witnessing the end of something, but really, that was just Day One. 

Wandering through the major portals – Vauxhall, Waterloo, Kings Cross, the Square Mile – it seemed as if the whole city was up for grabs. The vision of a metropolis before me was not Taxi Driver nor Children of Men, but something efficiently monetised, with every space bigger than a phone booth taken over by a seed capital firm.

The business that seemed to personify this most was Blank Street Coffee, a chain with seemingly no identity beyond its shock & awe attack on the city’s high streets and transit stations. Blank Street Coffee is the most standard millennial coffee shop imaginable, complete with a mint green colour scheme and range of merchandise. But while it may offer little more than cappuccinos and stale croissants, its business model reveals a bloodthirst not seen since the early days of Starbucks.

Having long assumed control of New York City, BSC seems to be planning on the same with London. The chain was built on venture capital money and its plan to make the most possible revenue from the smallest amount of real estate and personnel – teetering on the edge of full automation. Or as the company puts it: “Our automated espresso machines pull consistent coffee each time, and allow baristas to be more interactive and build relationships.” It even refers to its pastries as being “outsourced”.

I popped into a few. The staff seem to have been cast for their easy-going demeanour, but it was easy to get a feeling that their espresso machines were a bit like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Man vs Robot, coming to a high street near you. I used to be one of those people who got a bee in their bonnet about the arrival of independent bougie coffee joints in certain areas, seeing them as the path-layers for gentrification, scowling at moustachioed baristas from across the street. Now, Blank Street Coffee made all that seem pretty quaint and innocuous. There were much bigger fish frying.

There was something else I noticed: the signage. London appears to be reaching peak Helvetica, with endless notices spelling out the machinations of the city in a cloyingly apologetic, faux-human tone that suggests either ChatGPT or a legion of disillusioned copywriters all working on the same brief. At the Waterloo branch of Foyles – always a nice respite from commuter chaos – there was a refurbishment notice. But instead of it reading simply, “This shop is closed for planned renovations”, it read, “We know shutting up shop isn’t ideal, but we’ll be back soon, new and improved”. Small beer, perhaps, but the language felt very HR, like London was about to call me upstairs and slide a P45 across the desk. 

Also in Waterloo, the long-abandoned Eurostar departure zone had finally found a purpose, becoming the Sidings, “a place to gather, shop, chat, eat, laugh and be entertained”. The name has clearly been chosen to evoke Ye Olde London yet it represents the apex of New London, a shopping centre where the most tangible, lasting thing you can buy is a Blank Street Coffee tote bag. A micro-Westfield where nothing lasts more than half an hour. The Sidings is also notable for containing the much-feted Brewdog Waterloo, surely the Hacienda of organised fun: a pub with a giant slide; a place where, surely, nobody could ever fall in love.

The area around Kings Cross, now rebranded as a series of micro-districts – Coal Drops Yard, Lewis Cubitt Square, Nu-St Pancras – was always a heart of darkness. But now that darkness manifests itself in staggering new forms. Gone are the sex workers, the hot dog stalls, the sleeping away-day football fans; in are modern British cuisine, Scandi workwear outlets and the headquarters of DeepMind, Google’s AI project. Yet somehow it all felt as transient and as bleak as the old Kings Cross always was. 

I noticed luxury developments in places you never would have imagined such a thing. All called things like “Millington Square” and “Dalston View”. Sometimes you’d catch glimpses of the inside from the Overground – snatched impressions of gaming chairs, zebra skin rugs, exercise balls and glossy print art. I discovered that Acton, once one of the most low-rise London districts, had a pair of brand new twin skyscrapers that could have come from Shanghai or downtown Dallas. It was as if no part of the city was allowed to simply be itself anymore. There was always something to be built, something to be bulldozed, a buck to be made. 

[See also: Britain’s far-right contagion]

For every action there is an over-reaction, and this appeared in a mass thirst for places that didn’t conform to fly-by-night food fads or organised fun. All the most plugged-in people I know were now bunkering down in ancient Irish pubs and long-standing family food joints. Leading this backlash are platforms like Vittles and Caffs Not Cafes, which document the old-school, the niche and the just-about-surviving, while the brilliant London Dead Pubs shows us what we lost. 

The go-to restaurants among those in the know were not Dishoom or Duck & Waffle, but the Guinea Grill, Quality Chop House, Uyghur dumpling joints in Zone 3 and the tiny, obscure cuisine shacks of Queensway. It all felt as if people were trying to remind themselves they live in a world city and not a co-working space.

All this conflict, in whatever form, was a nice retort to my days in Middle England, where chain mediocrity reigns supreme. There, people still book tables at Pizza Express. Rather than the studied urbanism of Blank Street Coffee, you simply have Costa; instead of queues outside start-up burger vans, people drive 30 miles for a Five Guys. London felt, at the very least, like being on the edge of something. Like living in the past, present and future, all rolled into one hyper-expensive package holiday.

But it was the way people spoke that I really fell back in love with. Tuning back in to the patterns, the lingo, the oral culture of a town that’s on the move. Living in the country I often found that people wouldn’t understand what I was saying (even though I possess what can only be described as a “standard West London middle-class drawl”). Here, I could happily machine gun away at people, meshing together words and doses of slang. This was vernacular as tonic.

That is really what a city provides – a totally organic culture, one that absorbs people from all over the globe yet remains absolutely its own. As much as there are people who want London to become a bit like Shanghai, and Taunton to become a bit like Hampstead, these places will always make that difficult. It’s in their bones.

Read more:

London isn’t unfriendly, it’s one the most welcoming places in the world

Why can’t the UK get over its hatred of London?

Why London should embrace its English identity

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