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Are You Too Proud To Leave London?

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Photo: Thomas Kelley
Samuel Johnson has a lot to answer for. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” – his pithy line about why we should all love London or we’re better off dead is quoted more frequently than you might imagine. It’s used as a slogan, found on advertising boards on the Tube, and trotted out by friends as justification for commuting 45 minutes by bike from east London to work. But to what extent is this mantra damaging those of us who live here, and maybe want to leave? And why are so many people staying in London, despite record levels of pollution and a pretty dire housing crisis?

There have been many stories about those who leave to have children but what about the people who choose to stay? For millennials, with a lower annual salary than their parents’ generation, is it worth it?

Rental rates in London are at their highest ever, while one fifth of all workers are paid less than the London Living Wage (£9.75 p/h). Recent ONS studies have also pointed to an exodus of people from London aged around 32, which is traditionally when people start to have children.

I moved to London four years ago and currently spend over half my average monthly salary on rent (67%, actually, and that doesn’t include bills). I live in London because I am a journalist, and just about every magazine and newspaper is based in the capital.

I know I’m not alone in trying to make the best of things in London, so why don’t we all just leave, especially those who have non-location-dependent jobs? When friends elsewhere in the country ask around on Facebook for where’s best to buy in their city, I just laugh hollowly. In London we don’t choose where to live based on the best brunch spots, or whether there are good schools nearby. Instead, most millennials choose where to live based on cost alone, even those on big City salaries.

There’s just something I don’t want to do – admit that I can’t hack it in London


The idea that we stay in a city that punishes us sounds crazy, but to what extent do we remain because of pride? We don’t want to give up on the life we know it’s possible to have here. Come Saturday, there I am, proud to have saved money by walking home rather than spending a crippling £2.90. Then I scroll through my friends' Instagram pictures and look at their lives in Manchester or Sheffield or Leeds. I see them cycling around reservoirs (I could do that, too, if I drove a van to the Lea Valley), eating brunch in cafés for less than a fiver, and enjoying nights out with friends more than once a fortnight. It must be so easy there. Yet I stick it out, as do my friends and colleagues here. But why?

Tolerance and an "anything goes" mantra is important. People are more welcoming of difference here; living in a multicultural city with a vibrant LGBTQ scene is what makes London so appealing. Londoners, for the most part, are accepting of different creeds, colours, and faiths – rarely would anyone blink if a man staggered into a coffee shop dressed in sequins at 11am. It’s just London. But there are other reasons why people stay in the capital, despite it being bone-cripplingly pricey.

“I think for me it’s fear of failure,” says Jack*, a buddy who has lived in London for five years and works as a TV researcher. “When I left Newcastle I left all my friends settling down with their partners and having kids, to chase a career. London is seen as exciting and vibrant – I wouldn’t feel too great about coming home with my tail between my legs and admitting I get one job a month and the rest of the time is spent sending out CVs. The reality is, I need to go home, because I can’t afford to live here.” Jack admits that he’s struggling with depression in London and has high levels of anxiety about career progression.
Living in London can feel like one big fat real-life Instagram: appearance is everything. Yeah, I once went to the opening of a new sushi restaurant and shared nigiri with the entire cast of Eastenders. Yeah, I commute past Big Ben. But, yeah, I also can't see my friends as much as I'd like because it's a one-hour commute to Walthamstow or Stratford. Like Jack, there’s just something I don’t want to do – admit that I can’t hack it in London. What if I miss a gig I like? What if I don’t catch that new photography exhibition?

When we live through a filter, trying to convince ourselves that London really is awesome, we can lose sight of the little things. When was the last time you said hello to a stranger? When did you and your mum last spend an afternoon just hanging out? There’s a truth to the old adage that nobody in London smiles and I reckon it has a lot to do with the fact that we are constantly chasing something – but nobody can quite put their finger on what. There is little time to stand and stare, and breathe in great lungfuls of the city air. (Inadvisable, given that 9500 deaths each year are caused by high pollution.)

Most of my London friends cite “culture and work” as key reasons why they stay, and there’s no denying London is one of the most exciting cities in the world for music, art and theatre. Many say they’d leave if it wasn’t for work. Laura, a civil servant, said: “I simply can’t do my job outside London. I wouldn’t have moved here if it wasn’t for that.” Another, Jude, said: “People stay because this is where the work is, at least in the entertainment industry.” One friend who has moved to Leeds says she massively misses London. “I just love the variety of things that are on – if something only happens in one place in the UK, it's London.”

Yet some industries are trying to decentralise and prove it’s not all about London. Salford is home to the relocated BBC studios, while JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have all publicly discussed shifting work to other European cities post-Brexit. Additionally, the number of people requesting remote working opportunities is on the rise. Anna, a freelance PR, is worried about losing her contacts and life if she moves. “I think I could do my job very easily outside of London, or even outside of the country, as it’s 95% over email. However, I do think I’d miss out on new business leads and a general trend awareness if I moved out of town. Saying that, I’d save so much, I’d be able to stay in hotels or Airbnbs in town twice a month or so.”

Phoebe* thinks staying in London is putting her mental health at risk. “I’m embarrassed to admit it but I spend a lot of time keeping up with the Joneses. If I see friends heading out on a Tuesday night I wonder if I’m making the most of living here! Then I think maybe my friends in Lincoln are actually not partying in Lincoln on Tuesday night or going to galleries or secret dining clubs. I reckon London can make you lose perspective on things that matter.”

Perhaps rather than finding fault with the city we once chose to call home, we need to try to become happier with ourselves, or instead trust that we can live fruitful lives outside of the capital. Then, maybe, London will feel more possible.
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