London Tough



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.


8 comments on “London Tough”

  1. dave says:

    Yes, it’s definitely tougher for the working class young, particularly as they are completely priced out of any opportunity to own their own property even in the outlying London suburbs.

    My son can only rent … and even that is at what I perceive to be an exorbitant rate. My daughter needed to move further out to get on the property ladder and only managed that with financial support from both sets of parents.

    Having said that, London is still the most wonderful place. And being expensive has one saving grace … whenever you go anywhere else it seems so cheap compared to London.

    It’s hard not to compare against memories, but memories can play tricks. There is much in London that is far improved on the past.

  2. dave says:

    Incidentally, re-visit Roofworld? Yes please.

  3. Ness says:

    I’ve failed to look good in London but I don’t blame the city. Yes, the water does very strange things to my hair that even Aussie shampoo and conditioner (made in France – very international kangaroos on the packaging) fails to tame but it isn’t actually that expensive compared to other cities.

    I think it is easier being a visitor. There are niggles but compared to other cities London is easy to get around, has some of the best museums and galleries in the world and many for free. I lived in London at the height of the IRA threats so frankly not having to be paranoid about boxes next to bins in trains stations or unattended luggage on trains is a relief. I did express this opinion to a friend while we were travelling on the tube (I know, talking on the tube is outing me as a visitor) in July 2005. Turns out that was bad timing but I still think London is a less paranoid and fearful place than it was in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember having my heart broken by the story of a respectable looking woman begging on the steps of a tube – that recession seemed to have hit hard and across the age groups.

    Food and transport aren’t that expensive and house prices and rents are about on level with my home town of Melbourne. Same problem here – a whole generation can’t afford to buy, rents are ridiculous and we don’t have a history of looking after tenants so rental insecurity abounds. We also share the same drinking culture which I don’t understand as most of your pubs are so much nicer and some even lend themselves to interesting conversation while imbibing.

    I think a lot of the appeal is history. I’ve stayed in hotels in London older than my country. The sense of history is everywhere and it is a living, vibrant history. When I was in London last year I discovered there was air conditioning on the newer trains running on the district and circle lines and these trains were packed so some change is good. Our trains break down in the hot weather and the tracks have actually melted in summer so again, the tube seems pretty good in comparison. You have a ticketing system that works, our pale imitation is still struggling years after implementation. Our peak hour trains run about every 10 minutes on some lines in peak, usually closer to 20 minutes. So I guess a lot of the exotic appeal of London is getting away from things that you don’t like about home but there is definitely something else. The weather you can largely keep, especially in your ‘summer’ but Autumn is a lovely time to scrunch through the leaves in Hyde Park.

  4. admin says:

    Enjoy the free museums while you can…they’re on the list of charges to be (re) introduced!

  5. Ness says:

    Well that just ruined my day. Next you’ll be telling me they are discontinuing the manufacture of Jaffa Cakes.

  6. chris hughes says:

    No, I don’t want to turn into my mother and become judgmental:) But I think, ’twas ever thus. I remember living in London in the 50’s and 60’s when everyone smoked, including the chimneys, and you saw the world through a blue haze on trains, buses, tubes, in cinemas, pubs, shops. I used to travel on the Northern Line from Moorgate to the Elephant and emerge covered in a fine layer of soot…..ah! the good old days! One highlight of life were the mobile X-ray units which we all went to willy nilly and then lived in fear for three days before the all clear came and we lit up another fag. On a serious note, life is horrible for the young in London, I fear. My daughter rents and although she and her partner have reasonably well paid jobs they can’t get a foot on the ladder – but, we left London in the mid-70’s for exactly the same reason. The only difference was that we got a mortgage from the GLC to do so – unthinkable socialism!

  7. admin says:

    Grants to go to college! Free prescriptions! Museums without gift shops! (I’m just saying)

  8. chris hughes says:

    And free chest X-rays for all!

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