A survey was released showing how non-Londoners perceive the capital city. Comparing the raw data to its reporting in the media is a topical reminder of how data can be manipulated to tell a sensationalist story. Many of the headlines are aimed at fuelling the divide between London and not-London. Here is the real deal.
The results show that:
- 38% visit London once a year or more for leisure
- 50% never visit, or visit less than annually
- When asked to pick from a list of adjectives to describe the city, expensive, crowded, diverse and chaotic were selected most often
- When asked to pick from a list of adjectives describing Londoners themselves, diverse, arrogant and insular were selected most often
- Most thought that London contributed a fair amount to the UK economy, but little to their local economy
- 78% thought living and working in London was not a realistic option for them
I’ve highlighted the last point, because that to me is the most significant.
I can understand what London seems like to outsiders because I was one myself once.
I moved to London at the tender age of 21.
Having grown up in the Midlands, my knowledge of the capital city came from playing the game of Monopoly. Everyone has their own Monopoly strategy. I always insisted on buying the exclusive purple properties (then Mayfair and Park Lane), despite the fact that it sometimes bankrupted me. An early indicator of life to come, some might say.
On my handful of visits to the capital as a child, I’d made the following observations:
- People speak differently and there are ‘London words’
- You become rich just by living in London
- Everyone rushes everywhere, probably because they are so busy and important
- The underground is fun to travel on
How do I feel about those childhood assumptions now, after many years of London living?
The proper London accent is unique, but you don’t hear it often. You may hear French, Spanish or Italian though. London is a melting pot of cultures, languages and people, which is one of best things about living here. As our survey said, it’s diverse.
It was in London that my identity formed as a European and as a global citizen. I’m still British too, but I see myself as one of the mass of people moving around the world in search of jobs and different lives. Like many I’ve settled here for now to make a home, to contribute and belong.
Londoners move in international circles at work and in our friendship groups. I find other cultures fascinating and this facet of London has enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. It’s hard to describe how scary a prospect Brexit is when it threatens the core of our way of life.
As for wealth, sadly I was incorrect in assuming everyone is rich. It’s a painfully expensive city and that is an adjustment for many. I remember asking estate agents about prices for the first flat I would rent. I had a budget in mind which was considerably more money than I’d ever spent on accommodation. I was laughed at and informed that the cheapest, most bargain basement (literally in a basement) studios were going to cost much more. This was an experience that would happen in different contexts again and again. In many ways, it’s the formative London experience.
The average salary in the UK is around £27,000 and the average salary in London is around £35,000 so yes, your earning potential is higher here. Averages hide the extremes though so underneath you have a small proportion of super rich individuals and a large number of people scraping by. The cost of living is much higher too.
You make peace with the expense, but the truth is: there is level of earning you have to reach for living here to be enjoyable. At times when I haven’t had much money in my pocket, London was a very tough place to be. Quality of life can be much higher in other places, if you are lucky enough to get the balance of earnings and outgoings right.
Everyone does indeed rush everywhere. There is something about the city that makes you walk faster and feel like rushing even if you aren’t late. Yet over the years, I have cultivated a slower pace. At the weekend Londoners are allowed to be less busy and there is huge pleasure in that. Walks by the river, a gentle cycle ride or lazy brunch are pretty good ways to spend time.
The most laughable change is my view on the underground. Travelling on the underground is not fun. I’d even go so far as to say that it is psychologically damaging most days. A few years ago I started experiencing anxiety and claustrophobia when travelling. The heat, the discomfort, the crowding all contribute. I distract myself as much as possible when I must travel that way, avoiding rush hour like the plague.
The underground with fewer people is a fantastic way to get around, but it’s an old system with millions passing through on a daily basis. If you want to experience the underground in a civilised fashion, travel during Christmas and New Year. During those times I often feel like a kid again, imagining the names on the Monopoly board.
London has its own rules.
Stand on the right, mind the gap, don’t make eye contact. Once you learn the rules, it becomes easier. People often appear less friendly than in other parts of the UK, which could be where the perceptions of arrogance come from. To the casual observer, it can appear that everyone is out for themselves. They are too busy rushing to talk, after all.
However there are reasons for this behaviour. Living in such close proximity, people often build invisible walls so it feels like they have more privacy. It’s a coping strategy. Break the silence and you will often find people are civil, and even friendly.
The city is so big that people break it down into areas they know and areas they don’t. West London is my area. Most of the young and hip crowd live in East London, and perhaps that’s why I prefer West. It’s where I arrived after getting my first graduate job at an office on the Hanger Lane roundabout, near Ealing. And where I always return.
Life in London for me has been divided into the comfy cohabitation of my younger years, and the relative independence of my 30’s. It can feel like a different place from within the safety and security of a relationship. There have been romantic moments in leafy parks, roof top restaurants and hidden cocktail bars. There has been crushing loneliness and tears in the street, in office toilets and yes, on the underground. It has all happened here. Long term relationships are complicated.
The best bribe which London offers to-day to the imagination, is, that, in such a vast variety of people and conditions, one can believe there is room for persons of romantic character to exist, and that the poet, the mystic, and the hero may hope to confront their counterparts. –Ralph Waldo Emerson