Photography Alessandro Merlo, taken in his first year in London

Thinking of leaving London? Here's the case for why you should

4 ex-Londoners reveal why they've left to pursue creative careers elsewhere.

by Eilidh Duffy
11 November 2020, 9:00am

Photography Alessandro Merlo, taken in his first year in London

We all know the Samuel Johnson quote. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” 300 years later, people are starting to get really quite tired of London. And no, they’re not tired of life, just looking for a better one.

The exodus of young professionals from the city in recent months has been well-documented. Middle class professionals working from home are moving out to the ‘burbs in search of a quieter, less expensive existence. This might have accelerated during COVID but isn’t just a product of the pandemic. According to an ONS report released in June last year the number of people leaving London has been increasing steadily since 2013. 

But for young people working in the arts, this year has been particularly tough. With minimal support for self-employed people from the government (and none for the newly self-employed) the usual work culture of freelancing has become near-impossible to sustain. Institutions like the Tate, Royal Academy and Southbank Centre, who often employ young creative people, are leaving hundreds of staff jobless in a city where rent prices are far above the national average. 

The usual hubbub of London life that draws young people to it is, for now, on pause and, considering the lack of guaranteed long-term financial support from the government, many independent venues, galleries and bars who entertain (and employ) young people may not exist when we see the other end of this.

All things considered, the future of the arts in England doesn’t look too sunny at the moment. For some, it’s got to a breaking point. The following four young creatives moved to London to study, hoping it would give them something that they couldn’t find where they grew up. In the past few months, they all decided to move back. Here they tell us exactly why (and no, it’s not that they’re bored of life).

Furmaan Ahmed moved from Glasgow to London in 2016 to study Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. They moved back to Glasgow after graduating this year. 

Why did you move to London?
Moving to London felt like the next step for me to produce work and make connections. It seemed like the thing you have to do to progress as a "professional".

How do you think London has shaped you as an artist?
London gave me a work ethic I never knew I had. Moving to study at Central Saint Martins, it became immediately apparent that I was not the same as others and I really did not fit in. I was surrounded by a lot of wealthy people who were more ‘cultured’ than I could imagine. It made me realise if I wanted to make this work I had to work twice as hard as everyone around me to get noticed. London can sometimes cloud the reason why I wanted to be an artist. Lots of other things like clout and image can get in the way -- it definitely happened to me. London can either ruin you or turn you into a machine.

On the other hand London completely opened up my mind and made me less rigid. The people I met and the different cultures I interacted with helped me realise so much more about myself in terms of my diaspora and the similar experience so many trans, queer, POC and other people on the margins have.

Why did you decide to leave?
I think a lot of my personal values shifted and I felt I had accomplished what I wanted to with London for now. As I came to the end of art school I longed for proper connections with people I love rather than being part of a crowd for the sake of it. By leaving I feel like I took a lot of power and autonomy back in who I am and how I want to live my life. I’ve come to a realisation that my happiness isn’t based on success or the place I’m geographically in. 

What are you excited by getting in Glasgow that you couldn’t get from London?
I am excited by the new connections and the room to grow. I feel like I’m able to immerse myself into a different type of community here in Glasgow which feels a lot more vital to me. There is a lot less noise in my head to allow me to think and introspect. I can also be so much closer to greenery and the outdoors which is keeping me alive.

What do you see the future of London looking like?
To me the future of London and its creative industries is looking pretty bleak. As if it already wasn’t so filled with rich white people, I feel it will only get worse. There’s so much fakery around inclusivity and “diversity” but at the end of the day if you’re not rich and good-looking you aren’t valued the same way.

Alessandro Merlo moved to London in 2014 to study Fashion Photography. After graduating he worked as a photographer and teacher but decided to move back to Italy in October this year.

Why did you decide to leave?
General disillusionment with the industry and its strictly capitalistic money driven approach to art and fashion. I was also feeling a deep disconnect between my own identity as an Italian immigrant. After Brexit my idea of what London and the UK could be had started to crumble. The Tories won, photography jobs were becoming few and far between, then COVID happened. 

What changes did you witness in the city while you were there?
Considering I moved to London when I was 18 I am unsure whether London has always been the theme park for the wealthy it is today. However I have witnessed gentrification eating up areas of East London that were proudly working class. Dalston, the area where I lived and worked, is completely different from when I first moved there: expensive luxury flats are being built all over the place, Ridley Road Market is in danger of closing, Black and brown communities are constantly being pushed further and further out into the suburbs, rents are at an all time high and artists find it more convenient to move somewhere else where they can focus on their work instead of spending the majority of their income trying to survive in a place where they belong less and less by the day. When they built a Pret on Kingsland Road I knew it was time to dip. 

How do you think London has shaped you as an artist?
London is an extremely unique place where boundless creativity used to reign supreme. Despite its negative aspects I do believe that the countercultural spirit lives on in the work of many designers, artists and photographers who make London the exciting place it is known to be all over the world. Living there for so long I came in contact with the work of mind-blowing visionaries who opened me up to the infinite possibilities of art and fashion and that has of course shaped my work and allowed me to take creative risks I couldn’t even have dreamed of before. London is where I got my edge and my experimental attitude towards photography and I will forever be grateful for everything that I have seen and learned. 

What do you miss about London?
I miss my friends and I miss being part of the London queer community and the creative exchange I had collaborating with everyone there. 

What are you excited by in Italy that you couldn’t get from London?
I am excited to find my own artistic identity away from London. I do feel like London is such an explosive crazy place that sometimes you just become part of the big London circus without even realising it. I can’t wait to explore themes and subjects who are closer to my national identity and to the current artistic sensibility I have developed over the years. I progressively pushed myself to look for inspiration outside of the London bubble and I am excited to produce new work and share it with everyone. 

What do you see the future of London’s creative industries looking like?
I do feel like there is no way London and its creative industries can come back from its current capitalistic sorry state, fed by universities and corporations alike. The only way London could recover is if control is put back into the hands of the working class and marginalised communities who make London what it is and what it always has been. But considering how things are going we would need a miracle for that to happen.

Anonymous moved to London in 2014 to study their BA and MA in fashion design. They would rather not share their identity but felt strongly about sharing their thoughts. 

How do you think London shaped you as a designer?
Culturally it was very enriching and I think scuttling around like a sewer rat in the horrific capitalist cesspit of central London made me vow to myself to try to back away from the traditional factory line feeling of fashion and just work as autonomously as possible. So positively it opened my mind to a lot of things both good and bad.

Why did you decide to leave? 
The catalyst to flee was COVID but the desire had been insidiously stewing over time. I studied at Central Saint Martins in Kings Cross, which is right next to the Google HQ. All these buildings shooting up made it feel totally apocalyptic getting off the train every day. I was kind of longing for fresh air. The cost of living is laughable and I started feeling like I was buying into a way of being just by navigating the place. 

What changes did you witness in the city while you were there?
I think rapid growth and development of areas that had always been on the rise since I had moved but was really hitting the accelerator just before COVID. 

What do you miss about London?
Really good friends and also not bumping into people I know all the time. Plus the diversity and being able to exist without judgement.

What are you excited by where you are now that you couldn’t get from London?
A sense of community.

What do you see the future of London looking like? 
The decaying of buildings poorly built to fill big business pockets. Air thick from pollution, a big rusty abandoned theme park with chunky clouds of smoke billowing above it. And maybe the Thames has flooded the streets so it's all like mudlarking detritus, old pipes, poisoned water and mutant fish with three eyes. 

What do you see the future of London’s creative industries looking like?
I think as art schools become more business orientated and rent increases, all the talent from less wealthy backgrounds will be pushed out. So it will probably become more elitist, nepotistic and privileged, which in turn will make it more sterile. 

Photography Agent Julia Lessere moved from Paris to London in 2013. After making London her home for 7 years, in August 2020 she decided to move back. 

Why did you decide to leave London?
I was starting to feel trapped. I felt like London had given me all I could get from it, hence the move. But I also felt like London had changed, following the Brexit vote and the general feeling of disenchantment in politics I saw in my friends. Not knowing how to help and feeling like a bit of an outsider as a European made me feel that I needed a place where I could really put down some roots.

What changes did you witness in the city while you were there?
The gentrification and the constant back and forth between collective depression and joy. This duality took form the longer I stayed there. 

What do you miss about London?
My friends, my favourite spots, beer in a crowded pub, parties, the scenes, people, cultures and quorn scotch eggs (although now with COVID most of these don’t currently exist).

What are you excited by in Paris that you couldn’t get from London?
I am really happy being back somewhere where I don’t feel like such an outsider. And I’m also really excited about the idea of living alone. In France it's normal for people to have their own flats. I loved all of my shared house experiences, but I'm ok with wanting something else too! 

What do you see the future of London looking like?
I have no idea what the future will hold, like no one would have guessed we were to live through a pandemic. I see a trajectory based on what was already happening in London: small businesses being pushed out of the city because of crazy rents, more people becoming homeless because of high rents and areas being completely reshaped for a market that is non-existent. COVID will surely put the last nail on the coffin. I wish I could be more optimistic but I think it’s really hard to be right now. 

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Creative careers