Do I miss London?

Some years ago I was thrown out of London. And banned from ever returning.   Since that time I’ve lived in Liverpool.

Having lived all my adult life in North and then East London, and having mainly worked in central(ish) London, I was a proper Commuting Londoner, innit.

Commuting Londoners live two lives. One is a work life. The other is a home life. Very rarely can or do the two actually mix.

Anybody looking at a map of the London Underground can see how in so many ways it is like a star. There’s a central area where everybody commutes to and other ‘outlier’ areas where people commute from. Rarely do co-workers commute from exactly the same place. Usually they are from completely different places, a world apart.

If one is from North of the River Thames, and it takes 90 minutes or so, door to door, to get from home to work, and somebody else is from South of the River Thames, and it also takes them 90 minutes, it means it is very unlikely that you will bother to meet up or socialise outside of the work day. Well, if you do, of course, the socialising all takes place within easy reach of the common place of work. But friendships cannot develop into those where you are popping round to borrow each other’s lawnmower.

In common with most Commuting Londoners, I relied totally on public transport. There is no point using private transport in London. When carriages were pulled by horses around the streets of London the average speed a journey took equated to 8 miles per hour. Traffic still moves at 8 miles an hour. Whether it’s a bus, a private car, a taxi, or anything on the road, with the exception of the bikes who ignore all traffic lights and one-way signs, it takes an hour to travel 8 miles.

This was one of the things I had to get used to when moving to Liverpool. Road users can get into 3rd, 4th, and even 5th gear up here, and, unlike in London, they don’t have time to read War and Peace at traffic lights. I had to totally re-learn how much time to give when crossing the road. Cars move fast here!

Then, for me, apart from everything seeming cleaner, there being far more fresh air (even my life long tickle of a cough disappeared), and the streetlights seeming a lot dimmer making the nights scary, there was the oddness of the lack of colour.

London is full of colour. I mean that in two ways. People and clothing. Firstly, in London nobody has the same colour, heritage, or culture as anybody else. Usually they don’t even have the same first language. People from outside London don’t understand that this is why Londoners sit in silence on Tube trains. Well, lack of a common language, and the amazingly huge noise that Underground trains make as they move. Even in an office in central London, not only will everybody be from different points on the ‘star’ of London, but also they will be culturally diverse as well. Usually, those working together can all speak English. It’s an English with an ‘estuary’ accent. A new accent that has replaced the old ‘cockney’ that outsiders stereotype Londoners as having. Almost all workforces will be a mix of colour as different cultures work together to make enough money to pay for whatever home life they have, and the commute to and from it.

The other colour that fills London is from what people wear. It’s all different, again, often dependant on the culture of the wearer, but also because people are happy to be diverse. In contrast, in Liverpool, all men seem to wear a uniform which is coloured charcoal grey. Various different shades of grey flit around the streets in the half-light of the old fashioned streetlights. The only colours allowed are of the t-shirt that is usually covered up from public view by all the grey. T-shirts can be red or blue, depending on which team one supports. Other colours, or not supporting any team, is not an option. As for the diversity of workforces, there usually isn’t any. Yes, there are pockets of areas where Black communities and Muslim communities are very prominent, and these are being joined by a building Polish and Eastern European community, but the overwhelming majority of people in Liverpool are multiple generation White folk with no experience of anything but their own culture, other than when they pop into a takeaway or newsagents.

This lack of a cultural mix is very strange. It took some getting used to compared to life in London. It also leads to a lack of new knowledge or diversity entering the average workplace, and leaves them full of the prejudices that left London after the 1970s. Not just in the workplace, but in the social place. Pub conversations are like it’s still the 1970s. Hence why Margaret Thatcher is mentioned every third sentence and everybody is loyal to trade unionism. Even those who don’t and won’t work, are full of pro-trade union waffle, as if the miners’ strike was still under way.

I’m sure that diversity is what mentally moved us on down in London. New blood brought with it new ideas, new conversations, and new differences to just accept and get on with.

Having said all that, I recall London being a very lonely place. Excellent to be anonymous in, which is ok for the shy and introverted, but lonely. There was no real way to make friends or to socialise for non-pub goers. Even more so when no neighbour spoke English, or culturally was not allowed to actually talk to outsiders. The speed that it moved at was slow, but things would change fast around a person even if they stood still. Possibly social media has helped drag people out of isolation.

There was no social media for most of my life in London, but an interest in pirate and offshore radio helped grow a small circle of like minded (or inflicted) friends for a while. Pity Londoners who had/have no comparable interests.

The streets of London are extremely well lit, but it doesn’t stop the mugging and robbing at knifepoint / gunpoint, usually carried out as a sport. I experienced this a number of times in London, and was always feeling anxiety whenever I walked. Getting in through the front door was such a relief. Less so in Liverpool.

Yes, in Liverpool, ordinary people can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but most of the bad stuff is gang on gang or drug dealer on drug dealer. Late at night, in the less illuminated streets with grey shadows darting about, normal people, generally, feel safer than in London. Well, I do anyway. (Now I’ve said that I’ll probably get shot at later!)

So, life in that context is less tense than in London. Even so, London has a charm that Liverpool just doesn’t. If Fagin had been a Scouser, then nearly everybody here would have been working for him, or be instantly adopted as a ‘bezzy mate’, everybody knows everybody and everybody knows how to get anything and everything on the cheap, especially things that can be nicked from supermarkets, especially meats. London seemed less in your face and a little bit more, well, ‘moral’.

The extensive use of alcohol and cannabis, which is all but compulsory in Liverpool has helped wind-up the level of paranoia and misunderstanding to a huge, er, ‘high’ and the once clown-like jolly Scouse accent has mutated over the last 10 years into a whining mumble as the drugs take their toll and people speak without bothering to open their mouth much.

London has a lot of ‘clean living’ about it, with takeaways selling noodles and sushi or exotic and different foods, and specialising in quality. Liverpool only has chips, which are usually served with boiled rice, and covered with a sauce which is called ‘curry’. Or, to be different, the sauce can be ‘gravy’. It’s not actually a ‘curry’, it’s just a sauce, a paste, made from powder, and should more correctly be called ‘curry sauce’, not ‘curry’ which would mean an Indian meal down south!

The rice is normally a few days old and clumped together worse than cat litter, and the chips are made from the worst potatoes they can find. They are never the golden brown they should be, but the soggy white colour. This without exception is the base ‘food’ of the Liverpudlian diet. Sometimes people will have a ‘pie’ with it. The pie will have been sitting on heat since yesterday, have an almost impenetrable pastry and contents that have all but evaporated away.

In contrast, London, even in the more rural areas, provides a wider selection of foods, and all at a higher quality. The expectations of Londoners seem higher. I certainly miss the food.

I don’t know if there will come a time when Liverpool is as multicultural as London, or if takeaway food will change to bring diversity and quality, or even if the speed of traffic will slow to a crawl. But, for now, the things I miss about London seem equalled by the things I enjoy about Liverpool.

(† = Not really!)

2 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this post and it makes sense to me even though I am not a Londoner. Actually I come from Glasgow but recently visited my niece for a few days who lives in London. Years ago it was touch and go whether or not my niece would settle in London and it was the isolation that made it difficult for her. As it happened she she met her future husband and they now live in Streatham and although they are looking for a bigger flat because of the baby they want to stay in Streatham where they feel part of the community and have friends close at hand. That is so important.

    I used to think the English were more reserved and that is why it was difficult to get close to them. Actually there`s more to it than that as your post explains. London is big and people are separated by the difficulty of travel too. The colours and diversity I noticed. Shops stay open late too in Streatham and it`s busy and buzzy. I enjoyed my visit but it`s great to be home `amangst ma ain folk`.

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  2. Facinating post, Christopher, raising some points I hadn’t considered before, as I’ve never lived in London, so I haven’t experienced the issues you mention.

    I must admit that, as a “sort-of-foreigner” I’ve always loved the diversity in London wherever I’ve visited the place. And, of course, the great buzz. With that concentration of people into the space, there’s just so much going on but I can well imagine the sheer sprawl of London plus the vast ethnic mix of hopefuls looking to make a new future, it’s a transient population so those factors don’t lend themselves to making and maintaining friendships.

    I am better qualified, however, to talk about Liverpool. I’ve spent most of my life in or around the Manchester area, but from 1967 to 1970, during term-time, I was residing in Liverpool as I was a student at the University. My first two terms were in digs in Huyton (a dreadfully lonely experience), followed by the third term in Old Swan, again in digs. The next two years were rather happier, in the Halls of Residence near Sefton Park, a lovely location.

    I’d visited Liverpool for day trips with my parents since the 1950s and got to know and like the place and people very much – not for me, the stupid Manc-Scouse rivarly! It was full of great characters with a tremendous sense of humour, warmth and friendliness and in those days, it seemed much more culturally and ethnically diverse than Manchester. Of course, with the Beatles’ success it had become the musical capital of the world (for a short time, anyway) and there was a tremendous really vibrant arts scene that knocked spots off Manchester.

    Sadly, the intervening years have not been kind to Liverpool and it’s suffered at the expense of Manchester, both in employment and cultural terms. You infer that Liverpudlians have a chip on their shoulder, but I think it’s totally understandable. This was once one of the great ports of the world – thousands of emigrants passed through it on their way to the “New World”. By being dumped on by Thatcher and successive governments, the proud Liverpudlians are grieving for the loss of what they once had. It’s easy to say “pull yourself together” but not easy if you’re not used to learning the new tricks needed to survive. For that you need confidence and hope, both attributes seem to be missing in Liverpool.

    As an aside, I saw this at work in the Asian communities where my ex taught for many years. Indian families seem to be better educated and very aspirational and they integrate better into the indigenous communities while still preserving their strong cultural and ethnic identity. On the other hand, the Bangladeshis (and to a lesser extent the Pakistanis) were as poor as church mice, poorly educated, didn’t have the same aspirational drive and tended to congregate together in their own (ghetto) localities. It’s possible that Islam plays a part as it seems to be a relgion that encourages modesty and frowns on idolatry of all sorts. Nothing breeds confidence like success as the Indian population has shown over the years – the professionals evicted from Uganda by Idi Amin came to the UK penniless yet established themselves as an economic powerforce.

    Anyway, like Liverpool, Manchester, too, spent a lot of time in the post-WW2 doldrums, firstly losing its port, then the cotton and heavy engineering industries and by the late 80s, after a decade of Thatcherism, it was looking decidely shabby. Then came the IRA bomb in 1996, which seemed to be the trigger for action to reverse the decline of the previous decades. From that point on, Manchester has not looked back. The resulting investment into the city reinvigourated the place and at one stage, pre 2008, it was the fastest growing city in the UK. At some stage in all of this, we saw the arts scene exploding, partly fueled by the expanding young population at the Universities in Manchester and Salford. The 2002 Commonwealth Games was a terrific fillip to the city and really put us back onto the international map and that was another turning point for us.

    I love Manchester these days, it’s got a great buzz about it, the ethnic mix is tremendous bringing a wonderful diversity of cultures. Not all live together comfortably but as a “citizen of the world”, I welcome their presence. I do feel, though, that its success has been at the expense of LIverpool and that makes me feel guilty and sad for the people of Liverpool. I’m sure there may be other factors behind this, apart from the ones I have mentioned, one is probably that national government got exasperated with the confrontational style of local politics in the ‘Pool. But Manchester stepped forward and took risks – the Games being a prime example – and as they say “he who dares, wins”. Manchester is now undoubtedly the unpsoken capital of the North West, if not the North and in today’s world there isn’t room for two mega-centres in the region. I’m sure that’s affected Liverpudlian confidence over the years and some of the decline has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    So I can see what’s happened, but I don’t know how the tide has been reversed and it truly saddens me. Liverpool has and always will have a very special place in my heart.

    Best wishes

    Alan

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