It’s the time of the year when cities are ranked in order of liveability, healthcare, education, life expectancy, happiness index, motherhood and various other yardsticks of sometimes spurious excellence, and one thing is clear: London ranks far down the scale, somewhere around the mid-thirties, out of fifty. It seems to be the happiness bit that drags it down.
At the top are the usual suspects, three cities in Canada, three in Australia, Geneva and Abu Dhabi. I can’t speak for Canada and Australia, but as someone who has been stuck in Geneva on the odd occasion I have to say that it’s the most boring godawful hellhole I’ve ever visited. Pretty, yes, with the Mont Blanc in the background, well-run, obviously, but the few Swiss people I got to meet over the years were, to put it bluntly, creepy right-wing nutjobs. Maybe I got a poor test sample.
Oddly, the opposite was true of Vienna (another top-ranking regular), which I expected to be frozen in time and dull. Instead, I found it vibrant and exciting, with a thriving youth culture and a respect for the past that doesn’t inhibit the future. Paris, now, seems to have fallen into the worst of traps; in no other European city is the disparity between white wealth and ethnic poverty so shockingly obvious, but there’s always the Eiffel Tower.
I’m not making a case for London, which I love enough to criticise; our mayor is useless, our pollution is soaring, corporations take clear precedence over people, reforms (like improved cycle lanes, easier public access and fewer vehicles) have stuttered to a halt. The much-discussed and long-promised pedestrianisation of Soho never happened (the area remains a nightmarish mess). And yet – the people; intense, stressed, seemingly rude but unfailingly polite when challenged, quirky, informed and interesting – manage to make the city work.
But this isn’t a quantifiable statistic. You can measure schools and traffic, but not personalities. The other factor that can’t be accounted is the fact that London is the world’s crossing-point, heavily trammelled, scoured by humanity passing through to somewhere else, it’s obviously a nightmare to maintain and has been ever since the industrial revolution. It’s fairly safe to assume that Melbourne is not one of the world’s busiest spots.
London is filled with chancers, tricksters, duckers and divers who find a way to make the city work in their favour. Why? Because they have to. A friend from New York told me that a friend of hers said she hated visiting London because she’d been mugged twice.
Actually she hadn’t been mugged but had had her bag taken from chairs in cafes in Covent Garden. To which my friend pointed out; ‘Look at you! You’re loud, you’re waving your arms about, you’re strung with cameras, you’re sitting in a cafe no-one in their right mind would use – why don’t you just tattoo ‘TOURIST’ on your forehead?’
Well, being a tourist is no crime – we all are occasionally, and it’s no excuse for being targeted. And I’m sure you’re a lot safer in Winnipeg. But at peak times my local station is used by 75,000 people AN HOUR, or 53 million people a year. The fact that the city functions at all amazes me. It could be a lot better – but if it’s going to be measured on quality of life against a city of just 193,000 people (Geneva, smaller than any single London borough), other factors need to be taken into account.
London has never been a pretty city. Its biggest churches, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, could be called awe-inspiring but are not especially attractive. And they charge visitors a staggering £18 and £16 respectively (an admission: I have never been to Westminster Abbey as a tourist – I went to a wedding there once because Lords can marry in it, but haven’t seen around it properly). It does have great river views, and is Europe’s greenest major city by far, but it’s a bizarrely over-complicated sprawl of a metropolis.
What it doesn’t have is a fake-cute tourist surface, behind which are shoved all the no-go zones, as Paris does. Perhaps the real problem is that you can’t measure cities in lists at all. Except for the ones at the bottom end, like, you know, Lagos and Cardiff.