London Attitude: Why So Laid Back?



About four years ago, a British TV channel held one of those pointless debates to decide something unquantifiable. In this case it was; ‘Which is the cooler city, New York or London?’

Fighting in the NYC corner was a born New Yorker, a very smartly turned-out bright-eyed Time Out journalist with neatly side parted hair. On the London side was a scruffbag hack for a style magazine that has probably since gone bust.

The New Yorker outlined, in carefully reasoned and thought-through prose, why he felt that New York was the coolest city in the world. He broke this down into arts & entertainment, restaurants, parks, shopping and so on, building his argument as if at a debating society.

Then it was the turn of the London scruff. He scratched himself, looked blankly at the earnest young New Yorker and couldn’t be bothered to answer him before virtually falling asleep live on TV. He’d been up all night. It was, by anyone’s measurement, game, set and match to London.

Times have changed since then. Although the ‘We don’t try harder’ approach is still with us, we’re out to make money now, and  Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds might as well be on Mars as our massive southern supercity, aided and abetted by its politicians, just keeps getting richer. A garden-bridge is being planned to beat the one in NYC, but it shouldn’t be built while the whole of East London has no bridges at all and the southern half of the city is ignored in favour of attracting even more money to the centre. Homeless figures have risen by a fifth this year alone, but hey, it’ll sort itself out.

London doesn’t do controlled environments well so we end up with a West End that looks like a rubbish dump of junk-food outlets, bottlenecked pavements and traffic chaos. I haven’t been back to NYC in an age, but the last time I saw Times Square it wasn’t the crazy place I feared and loved in equal measure, it looked like a gameshow. It’s soulless, but New York understands that order is good for the centre of a city.

London is without order. It means well but almost every project runs out of steam – plans to cut our vehicular footprint have seemingly been wiped away by our Mayor. A grand idea to remove railings and demarcations between traffic and pedestrians (which works well in many European cities) simply disappeared. We’re back to the Tory Laissez-Faire policies of the late Victorian age.

However, London excels at chaotic unplanned merriment. Once the Kensington roof gardens were the place to be seen – now everyone heads to the unkempt beer-strewn greenery on the rooftops of the South Bank. Once Camden was cool – now the deranged mess of Shoreditch takes the crown. The messier it is, the more Londoners like it. We’re rowdy party guests and letting off steam is part of the London attitude. For a major city we’re ridiculously laid back. If you get drunk and cheek the police there’s a good chance they’ll laugh it off.

But in a city of 8.2m there are always threats. Bengali teens are radicalising in the East End, but there’s no visible fightback because the work is being done (we hope and pray) at an educational level, so we ignore what’s happening. Protest is in our DNA, and we’re meant to cause trouble when our civil liberties are threatened, but lately there’s been silence. Although the Mayor is helping to change that by buying water cannons.

To some extent, London has become a victim of its own popularity. England is a spectacularly beautiful country but if tourists see it at all (and it’s only small) they go to Edinburgh via York, rarely to Wales or Devon or East Anglia or to any coastal region. Employment is full so we don’t innovate. In Spain, where I spend a lot of time working, unemployment is high and the young are elaborately, bravely creative about finding ways to work in a fulfilling manner.

Perhaps we’re just not hungry enough to try anymore.


6 comments on “London Attitude: Why So Laid Back?”

  1. Jo W says:

    It’s not just now that the East and South of London are being ignored. It has always been so.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Wish I’d spent more time in Spain. Have been there once for 14 hours in the Madrid airport a couple of years ago, delayed in an empty international area, while waiting to get on an onward flight to Tel Aviv. Had to wait while the Icelandic volcano’s dust cloud made up its mind as to which way it would drift.
    The coffee was good and the sandwiches were, too. Couldn’t figure out how to work the international phones to save my life,

  3. Vivienne says:

    I think we have made progress on the roads. Kensington High Street is better, as is Exhibition Road, and at least you can cross the road at Oxford Circus without jumping barriers (if you find yourself there you may want to escape). I think the most recently rich people must be the owners of the Vietnamese restaurants in Shoreditch, which are absolutely full whenever I pass. I think London is cool in a natural, organic way : the next generation chooses the spot. Once it is in Time Out, it is probably already out.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I have heard that the Canadian government is considering (or actively pursuing) the sale of Canada House, that wonderful building facing Trafalgar Square. If they do just think of the development possibilities: low cost space for the homeless, halfway house for the recently released criminals, or housing for refugees.
    We were in Portsmouth, Bristol, and Swindon last month. Do they count? You have to see the bridge with horns in Bristol (just be careful describing it). It’s difficult for cities whose reason for existence is disappearing to find a new source of revenue and so often the easiest solution is tourism, but what else do you do with huge empty old buildings – warehouses and finger quays in Bristol and ship building/refitting facilities in Portsmouth? I had to do some heavy imagining in Bristol to see what would have been happening a hundred years ago, but it was fairly easy in Portsmouth. Huge drinking establishment near the entrance to the dockyards, excellent evidence of the workmen in the historic displays, and lineups outside a theatre for a performance.

  5. John says:

    If that interviewer looked hard enough (even back in 2010) he could’ve found an equally scruffy “hack” tired from being up all night to represent NYC. New York is filled with them. Most have probably moved to Brooklyn where it’s a lot more affordable to live. But I’m sure you’d find a lot still clinging to their rent controlled apartments in lower Manhattan. I really get tired of this stereotype of New Yorkers being literate, polished and sophisticated. It’s like something out of a 1930s edition of the old New Yorker magazine back in the days of the Algonquin Round Table gang. New York is just as cosmopolitan as London and just as chaotic. It’s only the surface that appears controlled. Times Square is an anomaly – a tourist trap of Disneyfied sanitized consumerism. Travel out of midtown Manhattan and into the neighborhoods you’ll find a vibrant thriving city that is sometimes exhausting to keep up with. Just had to put in my two cents’ — or more like a buck and a half’s — worth about the city I love the most.

  6. Steve says:

    At the risk of understating the case, I hate NY and love London.

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