“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”, Samuel Johnson famously wrote in 1777. I am neither a man nor tired of life, but I tired of London a long time ago.
Leaving London was one of my better ideas. I’ve already posted on some of the reasons I got fed up with the capital. My first year living there was an adventure. Every weekend, there were markets to explore, galleries and museums to pop into, parks to laze in, shops to investigate. I went to the cinema an average three times a week and ate out just as frequently. And I got a kick out of doing my own version of The Knowledge, learning the streets and shortcuts on foot, the bus routes and Tube lines.
And then slowly it began to pall. I truly began to hate the dirt and overcrowding. I resented the amount of my precious time it took to get anywhere. All journeys, whether one mile or ten miles, seemed to take 90 minutes. A bereavement made me question what I was doing in London, apart from grieving, and I left.
A weekend away to see a West End show with friends reminded me anew of why London is not even a great place to visit a lot of the time. Standing with a friend on Charing Cross Road at 1.45 am on a Saturday night looking for cabs in the chill night air quickly became a drag as, unusually, no taxis for hire drove past. We tried a few other spots and even rang some cab companies to no avail. We did eventually manage to hail a cab after 90 minutes and our cabbie also found another cab for me a mile further on as I actually needed to be going in a different direction (we were staying in separate hotels and the plan was to go to my friend’s hotel first then get the doorman there to rustle one up for me). By the time my head was on the pillow, it was 4am yet my hotel was only a mile or so from Charing Cross Road. I was struck by the ridiculousness of taking almost two and a half hours to travel such a short distance.
In the morning, the gutters outside my hotel were full of kebab wrappers blowing gently along like urban tumbleweed. Everywhere I looked there was litter – bottles and cans and empty cigarette packets and polystyrene burger boxes. No doubt visitors are unimpressed by the level of general grime that runs through London like a seam of coal. The capital has less than four years to embark on a clean-up and sustain it if it wants visitors to see a city to be proud of when the Olympics kicks off in 2012. Compare London to Paris, where the streets are washed down every day and litter is a rare sight even at the busiest tourist attractions.
Catching my train home yesterday morning, I was depressed also at the shabbiness of Euston Station, where pigeons were merrily pecking away deep inside the seated catering area, secure in the knowledge that no one would be chasing them away anytime soon.The most depressing thing about rundown London is that no one actually seems to care. Civic pride has gone the same way as the steam train and the quill pen. Londoners are so used now to the dirt that they take it for granted. To be fair, that attitude is prevalent in most of our major cities and towns. Only in the smallest places where a sense of community still genuinely exists is litter invisible. Even the city where I live, so small you can walk from one end to the other in little over an hour, has huge problems with litter, pigeons and chewing gum, although fortunately not discarded syringes.
I’m not sure what the answer is but those who run our cities should probably look to Europe for inspiration. Boris Johnson, whom I have never considered a credible alternative to Ken Livingston to run the capital, undoubtedly has a lot on his plate since taking over City Hall. If he truly wants to restore a sense of greatness to London, perhaps getting the boroughs to work together to clean up the city should be the first step.