It’s said that if a girl can look good in London, she can look good anywhere. Everything conspires against her. We have the hardest water I’ve found anywhere in the world. It silts pipes and cracks skin. We have key hotspots of overcrowding (tip: avoid the Piccadilly Line between Russell Square and Piccadilly during rush hour – it goes to Heathrow and many visitors figure it’s cheaper to take all their worldly belongings onto crowded tube trains). There’s no air-conditioning in the tube system but you won’t need it because this summer has been freezing, except when it’s wet, then it’s hot. We have the worst pollution in Europe. We have noise and light pollution that prevents good sleep. We have a work ethic that allowed us to opt-out of the EU’s maximum working hours rulings, and we have an equally punishing drinking culture.
I’ve now heard this referred to as ‘London Tough’ by enough people to virtually make it a trend. Survival and success become a matter of pride and machismo; the Thatcher eighties are back. We’ve become a city of hyper-transience instead of a place of tradition and permanence. Yet it’s surprising how few novels reflect the city that’s real and all around us.
As London hits high in the most expensive rents, travel and entertainment capitals (beaten only by the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland) it remains among the most popular destinations. Why?
I think visitors see what I am blind to. They compare the streets to places from their own experience, whereas I compare them to my remembrances. I fight not to do this; I don’t want to turn into my father and become opinionated and judgmental.
The ancient Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata suggests that there is no moral blame to be apportioned in the world, and that human beings must find order within themselves to create an ordered universe. That seems profoundly sensible, but in the process it’s clear one group is suffering most – the working class young – and the city that once offered them so many opportunities has turned its back on them.
I began my writing career in the 1980s with ‘Roofworld’, a book about the disaffected young living on London rooftops. It might be time to revisit the subject from a more grounded viewpoint.