the post london comedown
Continuing our series looking at opportunities beyond the capital, we examine the regret you feel about leaving. So you might be dreaming about cheap rent and discovering new cultures, but the reality of leaving London isn’t quite as romantic as it’s...
According the internet, Londoners have been getting really tired of life recently. So tired, in fact, that they're cancelling their tenancy agreements, leaving their Bow bedsits and checking in to that great big Dignitas clinic otherwise known as the world beyond the M25. This is hardly a new phenomenon, though. White people have been fleeing to the Home Counties for decades in a bid to evade all the incoming ethnicities, with their takeaways and little shops stocked full of obscure vegetables like okra. But in 2015, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Buying a home in the capital, like most other things that contribute to a dignified existence, has become too expensive for pretty much everyone with a job that demands a conscience. People are moving away to far-flung locales like Bath, Birmingham, and even foreign countries like Scotland. They then write back from the pages of major newspapers, trying to convince us (and possibly themselves) that it's actually not so bad. I can empathise, but I don't believe them, because last year, I too left London, and it's crap.
Like most people, I was pushed out by a combination of finances and the brutality of London living. I stood at the dawn of my career as a struggling freelance journalist, buying into the Ponzi scheme of unpaid internships, hoping they might help me overcome the nepotism and cronyism that's rife in the industry. London's the loneliest place in the world when you're under-employed. Because it's so expensive, people's lives naturally revolve around their job: you work long hours, always squeezing in some overtime because no one can actually leave at six on the dot. Being a freelancer isolates you. I was lonely, depressed, my personal life had gone stale, then I got a job offer in Belgrade, the city of my birth, which I'd left aged three. I thought I'd give it a year, get some work experience, then try make the move back.
There's an (allegedly) old Jewish curse that Serbs love to use, which roughly translates to "God willing, may you have then have not". The reasoning behind this is that there's nothing worse in life than downgrading - you're better off having never had it good than to have had it good, then one day have to go without, because the rest of your life is defined by that disparity. I can attest to the validity of that sentiment: the post-London comedown is terrible. Try to imagine what it's like to live in a global mega city and then having to move to an eastern European backwater like Belgrade. I know that these are all absolute first world problems of the highest order, but most buses haven't been serviced since the 70s. "Low-fat" options haven't been invented yet. There's only one club worth visiting. Asparagus is astronomically expensive. Bok choy isn't available at all. When waiting at a bus stop once, I actually saw someone approach a black girl and ask her for a photo as if she was Kanye West. The last time that happened in London was probably in the 1700s.
I suppose you'll just dismiss these as a set of extreme peculiarities that come with living somewhere that was on the receiving end of a NATO bombing campaign just 16 years ago. But although infrastructural problems and incredible ignorance of this nature might not exist in places like Leeds or Gothenburg, I think that when you scratch beneath the surface, there's a really fundamental depreciation in the quality of your life experience that comes with leaving a place like London for a city of inferior stature, whether it's Belgrade or Toronto or Geneva.
Although "of inferior stature" is of course totally relative. To some people, London might be 'inferior' to Singapore, but if you think that then you're intrinsically not a London "type" of person. If you love London for the qualities that it has, then, objectively, there are very few comparable moves that you can make. Sure, there's places like New York or Paris or LA, but if rent prices are driving you out of Hackney, then your broke ass can't afford to live in any of them either. The only significantly cheaper city that can compete in the same weight category is Berlin. Most others are poor relations.
What do I miss about London? There's that feeling of opportunity, for a start. When you make the step down to a 'lesser' city, you feel a real constraint in possibility, that the potential of what your life could be has been neutered. Belgrade has only one London-class restaurant. Six decent bars. Every one of my weekends looks the same. But this isn't just a mere decline in my recreational options; it's the claustrophobia that comes with knowing that I've reached the pinnacle of what my environment has to offer. Sure, I didn't have the money to regularly enjoy London's best offerings, so you can argue that there's not much of a difference, but I could spunk all my money at The Chiltern Firehouse then live off cut-price M&S sandwiches for a month if I wanted to, I felt a sense of self-determination… knowing that isn't an option anymore is asphyxiating. There's nowhere higher to go, there's nothing more to hope for.
Thanks to the incredible privilege that comes with a middle class upbringing in a developed country, here, I'm a sizeable fish in a very small puddle. I don't like that feeling. Cities like London attract and produce the world's best, brightest and most talented, who converge to define the zeitgeist and write cultural history. I miss competing amongst them, and yes, I was probably losing most of the time, but the odd victory always felt so much fuller than scoring a hat trick against Andorra as the captain of the proverbial B team. In cities like London there's that feeling that something's happening, important things worth remembering, and you could be a part of them, rather than just spectating. Modern culture starts in these cities. Somewhere like Belgrade or Sofia or Perth could never spawn grime or The Face or Berghain. They wait for globalisation to bring it to them; imitating that Brooklyn look or aping that Berlin trend (two years too late, usually), rather than creating something of their own. And if you've already tasted the real thing, your life experience begins to feel like H&M instead of Versace.
But maybe this is the great London lie: we buy into a vision rather than a reality, becoming infatuated with the idea of what London could be for us, rather than what it is. But I think that's called hope. I miss feeling hopeful.
Text Aleks Eror