During the first lockdown last spring, before my baby daughter was born, I ran a lot. Running helps me clear my head and see the world differently. It’s been important for my mental health for a while, and in spring 2020 it was more necessary than ever.
But what was different about running in those strange, dream-like days was where I ran. Instead of setting off eastward from my Hackney flat out to the Olympic Park or Walthamstow Marshes, now I would head west and south, into the City and the West End. What I experienced was something I will remember forever – the perpetually throbbing capital stilled and silenced. I knew it was an experience I would never have again, and so I drank in every second: I listened to birdsong as I crossed the river; I stretched my arms wide running down the middle of Oxford Street; one Sunday morning I replicated the closing stages of the London marathon, putting in a sprint finish down the Mall.
Awful as the circumstances around lockdown were, I will always be grateful for having the opportunity to see one of the world’s great cities utterly deserted. But in truth London didn’t feel deserted. Rather, it felt as if it had been denuded. Its life force had been somehow sucked out of it. As I ran past Bank and across Southwark Bridge, I stared up at the steel and glass behemoths that have multiplied and multiplied over the course of the last 20 years and I wondered what they were really for. What was the point of these temples of commerce and progress if the world was grinding to a halt? What was the point – bluntly – of London?
That’s when the thought of leaving first struck me. It came as a surprise to me that I was capable of such heresy. I am a bona fide, born and bred Londoner. I have called the city home for all but a few of my 40-plus years. And I love it. Quite warmly and truly, I love it. Despite the greyness of the streets and the skies, despite the clogged up roads and the pollution that creeps under your skin, despite the rampant, offensive inequalities, I love it.
So, why leave? There are big reasons and small reasons, personal ones and general ones. I said to a friend – another lifelong Londoner – that the city was “broken”. I was being provocative: I don’t think it’s broken, but for more and more people it’s not quite working either.
The story of London’s housing crisis is a well-worn one. There are endless statistics that could be quoted to illustrate the growing affordability gap that means if you want to live in London on a middle income, you will have to spend most of your salary on having a roof over your head (and probably the rest of it on food). The pandemic pushed the average house price in the city to over half a million pounds for the first time, and even that might not get you much if you have a family. For renters, the situation is much worse. Even in the cheapest of the 32 boroughs, the average monthly rent for a two-bed flat is more than £1,100. In most of them it is significantly higher.
This means, of course, that a decent standard of living is out of reach for all but the lucky and the rich. Across the UK, house prices have risen at almost twice the rate of average wages over the last 40 years, and in London – where a typical house costs nearly 12 times the average salary – the gap between the two is even wider.
The problems this creates are not unique to London, and nor are they entirely new. But we can all see how they have got worse. I’m a second generation Londoner, and it’s fair to assume that the parents of many people like me – many of my friends, in fact – would not have been able to settle in the city if the economic conditions of today had existed in the 1970s. Primrose Hill, the area my parents first came to when they moved to the capital from Tel Aviv, was never exactly deprived. But when they arrived it was a place full of artists and intellectuals, living in (relatively) cheap rented flats. Now, it is an enclave for the super-rich or those who timed their property investment just right.
It’s in that sense that London is broken. The deal we once struck with the capitalist devil is that if we worked relatively hard, we could (within reason) afford the things we wanted. The deal wasn’t always honoured, but in today’s London how you live and how you earn a living far too often have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. That’s not universally true of course, yet there are professions in which you can achieve huge success and still be forced to live a long commuter train ride away from the communities in which you work.
Of course, London is still a global city and – despite Brexit – immigration will continue to change the texture of the city at bewildering speed. In a sense, to lament for a London that once was and will never be again is to not really understand London in the first place. My worry, however, is that new arrivals will be only the very wealthy or the very desperate – and that cannot be healthy for any city.
The hodgepodge of different communities that emerge in different areas, transforming both the place and the people as they adapt to one another – that is what has created the London I love. Sociologists might use words like “urban blight” or “gentrification’, but to me these are just meaningless attempts to explain the shifting mercury of an ever-changing landscape.
I will miss the deep understanding I have developed for this magnificent, dynamic, deeply flawed and sometimes unforgiving city. I will miss the casual communities I have forged through intent and accident over years and decades. I will miss the feeling of being at home.
The week before we left, the Cypriot family who lived a floor above us in our 1930s block of flats were coming back from their allotment in Leyton, laden with bags full of vegetables and herbs. They handed over giant armfuls of mint, broad beans and courgettes and we told them we would soon be leaving. This made me sadder than the temporary goodbyes I was saying to close friends and family.
These were people I knew on nodding terms – we said hello to each other in the morning and looked out for each other after dark. We were not friends – we had been thrown together to live and sleep maybe 30 feet apart by the vast magnetic forces of a city. I hope the London of the future can still produce such intimacy.
As for me, I have moved to Bristol – a new city to run around and learn about. I have a garden for my daughter to play in with a chicken coup at the end. I can see (some) stars at night and a big sky in the morning. I live elsewhere, but I am and always will be a Londoner.
Gavriel Hollander is a writer, journalist, runner and (his word) dilettante. Follow him on Twitter.
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