London: Adjusting to the Great Wen

Illustration by Fiona Byrne

Of all the nicknames bestowed on cities in the United Kingdom, “Motorway City of the Seventies”, used to describe Leeds and its inner ring road, might just be the least impressive. Bringing to mind the smell of boiled cabbage and songs by The Sweet, it’s a name that derives enthusiasm from the idea of a controlled-access highway built for high-speed vehicular traffic. In just five words, it tells the story of a city that once seemed as thrilling as the film Tron, but nowadays has about as much pizzazz as a brown suit with leather patches sewn to the elbows.

As undeniably dull as it sounds, though, the Motorway City of the Seventies is hardly as derogatory as some of the names that have been used to describe London, which is where I currently live. In fact I used to live in the Motorway City of the Seventies, and I hesitantly gave up my life there to move to what some have called the “The Big Smoke”, and worse still, “The Great Wen”–a name that grimly paints the city as an enormous sebaceous cyst.

However, having now lived there for over a year, I’d be more inclined to call it “Tossers-on-Thames”, which I feel quite fittingly, albeit perhaps unfairly, sums the place up. After all, London does have a reputation for being a cruel and unforgiving place, where sociopaths and ruthless business-minded people come to thrive and make their fortunes. Some people come here deliberately in search of success, while others simply end up here in search of a living. Nobody moves to London to find civility. The city is a modern day gold rush, where ambitious types flock to stake their claim.

Of course, the cliché is that London is like a jungle, although I’ve always considered such a comparison to be an insult to jungles. A harmless creature like the sloth, for instance, wouldn’t last a day in The Great Wen.

There have been many days since I’ve lived in London where I’ve been sure that I’m that hapless sloth. I’ve often considered whether or not I really want to be living here, but right now, as I write facing out of the window of my tiny flat, looking out across a city shrouded in the mid-day sun, it’s not hard to see the pleasant side of this vast metropolis.

If you’ve ever visited London, chances are you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it; if you live here, then a combination of both these feelings are likely true. Some days London seems like an insufferable hellhole, while at other times I’m certain that it’s a city of great elegance. You just have to look up, I tell myself, to see how beautiful it really is—and, most importantly, try to ignore the staggering drunks, and the muggers, and the rats.

Foreigners flock to London everyday, seduced by the city’s employment opportunities and rich history—much of which happens to be the rich history of places from around the world that we’ve stolen, and have yet to return. In fact recently an American friend of mine visited the city and asked me for recommendations of things to do while he was here. One of my suggestions was to visit the British Museum.

“They have the Rosetta Stone,” I said.

“Still haven’t given that back, huh?” he asked.

Indeed, he had a point. No, we hadn’t given it back, and actually, we obviously have no intention of ever doing so. This was sort of like the tedious last stand of the British Empire: not returning important historical artefacts, and then hoping that nobody notices. It’s just so typically British, and it reminded me of something I once heard on a BBC documentary about the Elgin Marbles—so-called, of course, because they’re named after the man who stole them and brought them back to Britain, and definitely not after their creator.

One interviewee who was featured on the programme suggested that the great statues are better off for having been pilfered, because we Brits have done such a terrific job of cleaning them up, which is an idea that struck me as odd while I was watching the programme, and yet somehow even odder as I write now. It’s surely like going to a friend’s house, stealing their mantelpiece clock, and then refusing to give it back on the grounds that you’ve really polished it up quite nicely.

I suppose it’s true what they say about London: only Athens has more Greek statues, only Florence has more Italian paintings and only the floor of a soiled men’s room has more urine stains—although this is disputable.

Irrespective of what belongs here and what does not, however, from Shakespeare’s Globe to Tower Bridge, it is true that few cities are as iconic as The Big Smoke. Even today, amongst the high-rise flats and towering skyscrapers, there are many buildings that remind us of London’s well-documented past. Blue plaques litter the city, marking the homes of the great figures who once lived here, and every borough has a story to tell.

My area alone in fact comes with its own fascinating history. Yet now that it’s been redeveloped, the current landowners will likely want to forget the days when it was a squalid slum frequented by thieves and prostitutes. Nowadays, the living conditions are much less frightening, and whenever I tell Londoners where it is I live, judging from the frosty silence that invariably follows, I may as well have just have told them that I live in a brothel.

“Shoreditch,” I admit, having first said “Hackney”, and then being asked to be more specific.

For those who don’t know London well, these days Shoreditch is a hip, trendy place. It’s where the young folk come to fraternise and look pretty. Yet somehow, inexplicably, I’ve ended living there, despite the extortionate rent prices and the fact that I really couldn’t care less about fashion. If truth be told, I’m currently wearing a t-shirt that I’ve owned since I was thirteen, and my hair is naturally assuming a style that I’ve been told was briefly popular in the 1970s—although I’m not so sure it ever was. It lingers somewhere uncomfortably between Leo Sayer and Donald Trump, sticking up where it’s not supposed to and remaining flat where I wish it wouldn’t.

There’s no doubting that I am not a cool guy, not even in some bizarre ironic way. I have the drab and nondescript dress sense of Trotsky, and a face to match—although I don’t doubt that Trotsky’s facial hair would have been well-received by Shoreditch’s vast community of stylish hipsters. So how I’ve come to live here, I’m still not entirely sure—although ignorance might have something to do with it.

A hub for the casually interested to pose as enthusiasts, Shoreditch is where style comes to prevail over substance. It’s a place where sexy people come to validate themselves by shaking their heads judgementally at other sexy people. It’s New York City’s East Village without the record and bookshops: where the writer Jack Kerouac is idolised, but only because his face looks great on a t-shirt.

Nevertheless, like most places in London, Shoreditch certainly has its redeemable qualities. The location is ideal for getting around London quickly and easily, with an Overground station nearby and two underground stations, Liverpool Street and Old Street, just down the road. There are also many fine places to eat and drink, including some fantastic Vietnamese restaurants, two very cheap bagel shops, a Turkish coffee house and many cafés, most notably the Albion, which serves delicious traditional English food and freshly-made pastries. Additionally, despite being home to some utterly abysmal art galleries and art shops—many of which seem to operate exclusively to arouse the absurdly trendy people who run them—Shoreditch does have some decent galleries, particularly the ICN, which seems to specialise in traditional Japanese art.

As awful and as cheesy as it sounds, it is true that the advantage of living in London, and especially Shoreditch, is that you’re never too far from something exciting. Whether it’s a comedy night, a gig, a museum event or a film screening, it’s difficult to complain about be stuck for things to do. Indeed, I spent much of my final year in Leeds feeling extremely bored, and so at least I now try, albeit often to no avail, not to take for granted living in a city that is so vibrant that it’s practically spinning.

During the relatively short time that I’ve spent in London, I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in many parts of the city, and have therefore seen a fair bit of it. I’m familiar with many of the richest areas and also many of the poorest. In the Bank area I’ve rubbed shoulders with self-important bankers all dressed uncannily like Patrick Bateman, and in Brixton I’ve taken little inch-long steps wading through an endless sea of busy people. But regardless of where I am, in London I never feel as if I’m killing time, perhaps because I never have to.

From Camden to Barbican, from Borough to Soho, a restaurant selling exotic cuisine, or a show, or an exhibition is always less than fifteen minutes away. Like New York, London really does have it all, even all the stuff that none of the other cities want. And while it’s easier to criticise than it is to praise, I can’t deny that I genuinely enjoy life in The Big Smoke. I enjoy spending a warm afternoon walking around the Barbican centre and its neighbouring estates. I enjoy being able to get to London Bridge in twenty minutes for a drink with friends. I love browsing the shelves of Book Mongers in Brixton.

Having been born and raised near country fields, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I miss being able to look out of my window and see a horizon of trees and golden crops. Now when I look out of the window of my flat in London, the view hardly compares, although it is nevertheless an astonishing sight. The city’s architecture is breathtaking, and I can admit this even when I think I’ve had enough of the city, when I’m certain that it truly is an enormous sebaceous cyst.

Indeed, London can be unkind city, but only because it’s full of people who are trying to get ahead. Living here is like being in a relationship with an abusive lover who is nasty one moment and overly nice the next. Thus it’s hard to conclusively summarise one’s thoughts on the city. However, one thing’s for sure: for better or worse, it’s certainly a more entertaining place to live at least than the Motorway City of the Seventies.

3 thoughts on “London: Adjusting to the Great Wen

  1. You just made my list of things to do today and that is to begin work on “Motorway City of the Seventies”. The false biopic of a little known Yorkshire band from yesteryear who slip back into the denim and leather, albeit with some force, for one last shot at fame at the local radio festival “Motorway City of the Seventies”. Featuring Bruce Jones, that’s Les Battersby to me and you and featuring a cameo from Tony Blackburn. “Is thee Ready f’t Rock!”

  2. Hey… Probably your best article yet. At least, in my opinion anyway. Amusing and informative but without being excessively so.


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