During my many years as a resident of the North I always disliked London. It was always a pain to visit. I’d stay at my sisters in Haringey then agree to meet a friend for a beer. Ninety minutes later I’d arrive at a pub after stumbling though the transport system to the other side of the City. I’d then spend half my weekly wage getting home. Expensive and stressful.
I’d be earning decent money in Bradford, enough to rent a nice two bed terraced house in one of the posher areas for less £200 a month. I’d visit friends who were much more successful than me and wonder why, despite their income, they were living in a damp box in an inaccessible area. Expensive and a rip off.
But after studying and living in the City for a year I discovered what was so great about it. While the aggressive economics of the place still grate, it’s all very swiftly normalised. I was soon visiting the homes of friends with good jobs and enquiring; “wow this is great, how do you afford this amazing box?”.
I like the endless variety, meeting new people all the time, the parks, the theatres, the sense of adventure and lack of tedium. The never ending possibility to go somewhere you’ve never been before. The internationalism. The tubes home at 11 on a Monday night packed with people. The sheer energy that a City of London’s size brings.
Both views are still with me, but having lived here for three odd years this subjective polarisation continues but through more schizophrenic, rollercoaster fluctuations. The inequality of the City can be ignored or can jump up, re-focus the view and make everyday scenes ugly in the context of a wider social significance. (The intensity of this judgment is of course because as I observe the people and places it reflects on me – and I am an integral part of someone else’s view).
‘Cool’ places and events, sway between authenticity and vacuous affectation, and I’m often lost as to which of the two it is I’m experiencing. From the Russett in Hackney to a converted Working Mens club in Shoreditch, spaces can be at once charming and offensive, creative hub and commodified lifestyle art, alt-culture and disguised corporate-culture.
A quick illustration of the speed with which the perspective shifts: I once went to a concert at well known venue in Haggerston. I stood and and queued among non-residential, industrial and graffitied streets. It was all very downtown urban. I walked through a garage hatch and paid my money over a fold out table in an underdeveloped warehouse space. It was authentic and unpretentiously basic. I didn’t think too deeply on the reason there was such an intense bag search checking for smuggled bottles of off-license booze. I walked past an old oil works which the venue overlooked, it felt meaningful in its connection the local past. I walked up to the no-thrills bar selling beer in cans. It was simple, bluesy and refreshingly unglamorous. I paid £6 for the fizzy pop size can. Suddenly and overwhelmingly, it was an over-priced, money-grabbing and pretentious shit-hole.
In similar way I’ve discovered the perfect test of London mood. A sight that can have no objective interpretation and which has induced polar opposite reactions depending on the state of my life, and my consequent mood, at the time. I remember walking to Clissold park one day on a sunny afternoon and in good spirits – feeling the London vibe. A Stokey mum came cycling toward the gates of the park as I arrived and I let her go first. She had a box at the front of her tricycle with her three kids in. I’d not seen that before. I smiled at the sweetness of it all and it formed a pleasant addition to the idyllic drift of my day. A welcome and quirky part of my London scene.
Two weeks later, frustratedly looking for somewhere cheap to live having just come out of yet another failed attempt at a relationship, I took a walk to the same park to relieve some stress. Another mum – maybe the same one but given the prevalence of the trend as likely not – with her kids in a box. Only now a privileged, smug, gentrifying, whitifying, lifestyle-fascist Stokey mum. “Oh piss off with your kids in a fucking box”. I thought.
So whenever I see this now common sight, I get to gage where I am with London at that given time, knowing always that it’s best not to celebrate or deride anything too much – setting your gaze on one side of the coin can make you dizzy as it spins.