Capital Letters

Hunger at Holborn

I arrived in town several days ago with a car full of long-haul snacks. I am hungry,  I am tired and I have the nutritional profile of a feral child hotwiring a Ford Fiesta on a windswept housing estate. I desperately need to cook.

Yesterday I managed to find a 24-7 emporium of unidentifiable tinned goods. I’m fairly sure that almost everything that grows, swims or grazes has been ground down and compressed into a can at some point, but even so, tinned burgers was a distinctly new phenomenon to me. Suspecting that they may not have been as wholesome a snack as, say, the tin they were in or even the shelf they were sat upon, I declined to surrender to the allure of mechanically processed lips and arseholes in a bap and moved on to pastures new. For lunch, I foraged for fast food and sandwiches, but today it has to come to the crunch. I need actual nourishment. Where exactly are the shops?

I live in a flat just around the corner from Holborn Circus and in this part of town, big architecture dominates. Big buildings for big businesses staffed by tiny, tiny dehumanised insect folk scuttling about in between. As far as this part of town goes, the concept of the city appears to have gone too far; the environment which institutions find perfect for moving capital around the globe – a jumble of high-rise office blocks all concentrated in the financial hothouse of the Square Mile – is not an ideal habitat for humans. It’s quite hostile to all life, in fact. All I can see are sandwich bars, coffee bars, bar bars and weird retail dental practises.  There’s nothing for anyone to get their teeth into.

A cop car goes wailing past. I can’t help but feel that, even in a city of eight milion souls, I hear a lot more police sirens than I really should. It has been said that, on average in London, you’re never more than fifteen yards away from a rat – which is, perhaps, the only life form that can truly make a go of it in the financial district. But at all hours of the day and night, city dwellers are seemingly never more than a few moments from the screaming tendrils of an emergency of some kind. Criss-crossing their way around the capital, each siren, each conduit of distress connects an outrage with an emergency vehicle. It’s no wonder that, at times, London life can feel a like crisis enclosed in a calamity, wrapped in a thinly-veiled panic.

Almost immediately, as if to underline this thought, a police car screams past in the exact opposite direction. Had the two police drivers compared notes before they set off, who knows, they may have been able to stay put and just deal with the emergency closest to their origin. Such are the dangers of crisis management, the current method of controlling London.

Back to my search for nutrition, I notice a familiar logo. An enormous Sainsbury sign the size of a whole street back in the dear old WC – my slightly bitter sobriquet for the West Country.  At last, the architecture houses something of real use – a glass cathedral of commerce, a superstore, right here bang-slap in the middle of town: What a fabulous idea, I wonder if it will catch on.

Under the logo, an enormous orange poster, dominated by an enormous orange, at least three hundred and fifty times the size of any orange I’ve ever seen before. It has a slogan – something about freshness and value, I forget precisely – and I am lured to the door by this photographic representation of food that is not a sandwich.

I open the door and a man in a suit says good afternoon. Now that’s service. The manager himself appears to be standing at the door to usher his customers in. And in I go, to a large atrium at the front of the building.  There aren’t many people about, but the lady behind the long low customer service desk is very well dressed.

Where are the trolleys, I wonder.

I look. Several yards into the building and the embarrassing truth dawns on me. This is not a supermarket. There are no trolleys because nobody has ever shopped there before. The staff are so polite and well-groomed because they usually only have to deal with a specially selected sub-set of the general public. I know all of this because I am standing in the atrium of the head office of Sainsbury plc. I turn around with my new-found urban coolness and let my assured, purposeful gait walk my straw-sucking simpleton mind from the building. I am officially a hick from the sticks, a moron from Moronia, a small village idiot fish in a big city pond.

Eventually I find that there is a tiny supermarket just around the corner – effectively the back door of head office – that stocks food for the financial district; sandwiches, baguettes, microwaveable plastic pots full of chicken snot and other offerings belched up by the ready-meal industrial complex. It occurs to me that the gophers and minions that administrate the offices and dealing rooms of our world-class city institutions are run on pre-fabricated food. Maybe that’s why the economy is so fundamentally buggered as a concept.

My mission completed, I take my carrier bag full of this evening’s nutritional disappointment for a walk around town. Holborn Circus sounds so grand, so London, you may feel that it should be on the Monopoly board but it is really just a tiny signal-controlled roundabout with a statue of someone on a horse. Quite who is riding the steed, I cannot say; show me someone who can tell you who it is and I’ll show you someone impaled on the front of a taxi, because you can’t get near the thing without a certain degree of recklessness. It seems odd – a back-handed compliment even – that someone is marked out for special recognition, perhaps for their own stab at gallant recklessness, gets a statue erected in their honour which nobody can get near enough to read the name on. It’s apparently Prince Albert up there on the horse straddling the carriageways between the number 25 bus and a couple of vans full of Polish builders, but it may as well be in memory of Derek Twiddle from Peterborough, the first man in history to open a tube of glue without sticking his thumb to his tie. The horse is merely symbolic – a transient by-product, as it is, of the manufacture of glue.

Six roads radiate from Twiddle’s memorial at Holborn Circus, but none of them are at all remarkable, except Holborn – which is famous, at least in my mind, for being the location of the half-timbered building known as Staples Inn, a picture of which has adorned the front of a packet of Old Holborn since before I could comfortably breathe without making a high-pitched whistling sound. There’s also the old Prudential building – Holborn Bars, designed by the Victorian Gothic revivalist architect Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History Museum and, apparently, Hove Town Hall, but most of Holborn is dominated by drab high rise offices that take over the landscape in an almost authoritarian way.

I am an admirer of modernist architecture, but most of the buildings that line the office canyons of the City and its immediate area have little architectural merit. One building in particular – a structure I simply call ‘the ugly building’ lies directly opposite my flat. Long and low and clad in alternating shades of pink granite, with burgundy steel window frames and tinted panes, it rises to six storeys high at its southern end, in a manner I imagine the architects described as the prow of a ship. The building has the aesthetic potential of a dog turd in a food blender and the allure of a spreadsheet, so it should come as no surprise to find that it is entirely populated by accountants – not the humble, mousey kind who empty out shoe boxes of your receipts every year, but multi-national corporate serf-eaters who plot trajectories on graphs and eschew simple number-crunching in favour of systematically buggering entire third-world economies to turn a buck for their masters.

There is one thing about the building they inhabit that shows a certain Dickensian penny-pinching in operation, however. The disgraceful piece of architecture is mercifully stopped in its tracks at the intersection of two streets where the pavement is uncharacteristically very narrow. The roads meet at a slightly acute angle which makes it very difficult for the thousands of commuters leaving nearby Farringdon Tube to get around. At street level, the building has this acute angle chamferred off, which would give people more room to get around the corner, that is if it wasn’t for the accountants, who have built an otherwise pointless barrier to stop people crossing even one single yard of their property. It is for this example of dull mean-spiritedness that I believe that the Ugly Building should immediately be knocked down and its cavity filled with decomposing vomit in an effort to improve the environment.

There are, after all, tall and ugly office blocks all over London, and they are knocked down and replaced on a wholesale scale. The City of London has an almost unimaginable thirst for office space, despite the fact that 75% is built speculatively and that at least 10% of it – some 11 million square feet – is unoccupied at any one time. A building I walked past the day I moved in – one which I was determined to investigate more fully because it bore the slogan ‘Crowson’s – The Fancy Cheese People’ – has already been knocked down just days later. I am struck unaccountably sad by the realisation, for I will never know just how fancy their cheese really was. There is nothing left in the spot formerly chock-full of fabulous dairy products, it is now just a hole in the ground and looks for all the world like the cavity left by a removed molar. To add insult to injury, I can’t help but notice on a planning application tied to a nearby pole that the hole in the ground will shortly become yet another Sainsbury’s mini-market – the third within a few hundred yards of their headquarters – and one which will inevitably stock more on-the-go nourishment to keep the economy moving.

A Rival for Departure

The people of Cornwall have a telling name for the humble Puffin, the pint-sized bird that bustles its way around many of the county’s cliff tops, occasionally stopping to stare vacantly at the sea as though it had never seen it before; they call it ‘The Londoner’. The exact origin may have more to do with the old Norse name for the bird, but if you stop for a moment to compare this comical character with tourists down in the county for a fortnight’s worth of wind and warm Atlantic drizzle, a world of similarities begins to open up. Puffins are noisy, they are gregarious, their chaotic lives are arranged so that that they live cheek by jowl with one another in tiny little homes and by the time that winter has come, Puffins, as well as their metropolitan namesakes, have all flown the county and are busy pumping their guano out to sea somewhere else.

For all the endearing qualities of the bird, the comparison is hardly a positive view of the inhabitants of our capital city, but it is an opinion that is not unique to Cornwall by any means. The consensus view of London from outside of the Home Counties is something of a tired and withering glance. A worry about its enormous gravitational field, its propensity for centralising everything and the brute force of its financial markets are understandable concerns. Add to those preoccupations a natural loathing of anything that proclaims itself to be svelte, sophisticated and cool – which, undeniably, is the capital’s self-image – yet still gives succour and attention to godawful anachronisms like the Pearly Kings and Queens, and you have a strong base to build distrust and antagonism.

Then there are the unavoidable environmental and social factors. Unless they drink and bathe in Evian, Londoners may need to use water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of somebody living in their road.

On the social level, like many large cities, London can be a very lonely place, but there is another dimension; it is often said that a simple act of unsolicited friendliness, like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation, will draw the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. What you will get for your trouble is a terrified, hostile stare that makes pissing in your water seem polite by comparison.

There are many other reported faults with the place and the people. There is that annoying habit of Londoners to talk to their out of town friends about London streets as though they were internationally recognised landmarks. Move over Stonehenge, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the pyramids at Giza, and make way for ‘Goodge Street’ and ‘the bottom of Tottenham Court Road’.

Londoners who insist on behaviour like this are bad ambassadors for the city, especially when they stretch beyond the merely supercilious, to become haughty and condescending as well. Force-fed as they are, with an image of their home town as a world-class city – an image they accept without any question because it confirms what they think of themselves – they are often unable to deal with the realities of anything that exists outside the confines of the M25. When they do step off the hallowed soil of the capital, they tend to take a part of London with them, unfortunately it’s the wrong bit to carry – a brusque and hurried arrogance, unsympathetic to any other way of doing things. Still plugged into some kind of Caffe Nero Matrix, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.

Despite being the son of two Londoners – or perhaps because of it, I used to share this dim view of the metropolis and its occupants. I thought that the place was hugely overrated, especially by professional metropolinites like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Will Self, not to mention those arbiters of cool who are so provincial that the idea of a cab ride south of the Thames is tantamount to a rendezvous with social death.

It was therefore a huge surprise to most of my friends when I announced that, in my extreme late thirties, I intended to move from a resting and rather self-satisfied seaside town on the idyllic coast of Cornwall to an edgy and urgent environment bang-slap in the centre of Britain’s largest city.

Friends of family who comforted themselves that the move was going to be to some benign suburb or other were horrified when I told them that it wasn’t the anonymous hinterland I was seeking, but the real deal; if I was moving to London it was going to be Central London. I was tired of living on the periphery of things, I wanted to live on an entirely different edge altogether.

So, in the eyes of the Cornish at least, I joined the colony. In moving to London, I became a puffin. Although a few of my friends were delighted and admired my recklessness, others were absolutely stunned. It would be fair to say that many feared – though I’m hoping that not too many wished – the move would be a complete disaster and I would be back in Cornwall soon, with my life in ruin, my bank balance evaporated and my tail between my legs. Even the removal man who came to price up the job tried to talk me out of it. “That London” was essentially an evil pit of despair, crime and hatred. I must be mad. A mad puffin flying headlong into the smoke. Needless to say, it was a different removal firm that took me to London a few short months later.

The first thing that I noticed was that the dim view of London was shared by many Londoners themselves. They love to exchange stories of extreme violence, the obscene price of accommodation and the general cost of living in our biggest city. Commuting, pollution and the rudeness of shopkeepers are a popular subject of the odd idle moan and the price of a pint comes close as a perennial favourite. One friend of mine recently told me that, of his extensive network of London friends, I am the only one he knows who wants to stay. Most of his mates continually gripe about the capital, often for very good reasons – the place is far from perfect, after all – and are all hatching plans to move somewhere else as soon as circumstances turn in their favour. Some, usually exercising the combined willpower at the command of a couple, have even stopped moaning about London for long enough to do something about it and actually leave.

They are not the only ones. According to the Countryside Agency, a million people have left our cities to move to the country over the last ten years. In a sense, they were seeking the direct opposite of London; a complete volte-face lifestyle change; a symbolic about-turn that, I believe, says as much about them as the circumstances they were trying to escape from – whether that was fleeing the toxic cocktail of diesel fumes and low-level ozone, leaving the crime-filled streets of metropolitan life or striving for a simpler back-to-basics existence for themselves and their families. It’s now such a familiar story, it has almost become an urban rite of passage stuck there in the middle years of British life between puberty and death. Where once our forebears waited until retirement to be swept away by the lure of thatched cottages with unfeasibly thick walls, the modern Briton feels the urge in his or her thirties. They cite all the usual reasons, fear of violence, the daily commute and other urban anxieties.

Most of those anxieties are simply elevated versions of the worries on everyone’s shoulders – that their suburban home is going to be burgled, then blown up by a brutish gang of teenage homosexual al Qaeda suicide bombers wearing hoodies, a situation that even the hysterical and lascivious Evening Standard would struggle to reduce to Gay Terror Teens Go Bang in Burgled Bungalow. It’s a compound worry, an amalgamation of anxieties fed to us daily by Standard screamer boards, headline crime figures (that is, statistics for headlines picked out of context for their emotional power) and blind terror of ‘the other’ – what is not you and yours and you have no understanding or control of even though it is all around you. Mix it all up  and there it is; unarguable proof of your worst nightmare – that your town is a toilet and there you are, peering up from the bowl.

This feeling of capital panic not only circulates around the city, but stretches beyond London’s boundaries to the rest of the country. A friend of mine visiting from Cornwall confided that she was very worried about making the trip and wondered what she would find when she got here. I was astounded to discover that she expected to see armies of grey zombie commuters marching the city streets not looking at one another for fear of being randomly attacked. She believed that shopkeepers would be hostile and guarded, that she would be able to sense racial tensions and anger, in one form or another, would be all around. She’d only been to London once, in her early teens, and she didn’t experience anything then to form those opinions, so I wondered where the source material came from. In her case, she must have picked it up from the media, from friends and from the general attitude that the big city is evil incarnate and the best you can do is survive it.

TV companies are partly responsible for the diabolical image projected of the capital – thinly-veiled estate agency shows like Location, Location, Location persist in showing London through the barrel of a telephoto lens, squashing people and perspective on top of one another in a busy street with a red bus in it. The hackneyed library shots are all filmed at a disconcerting angle of seven degrees from the perpendicular and then crash zoom into another shot, this time of fluorescent-faced businessmen getting off a slam door train at London Bridge Station which, to be fair, is a bit of a shit hole. This then cuts to a slow pan shot of green hills under a wide blue sky with light, puffy-fluffy cumulus clouds patiently queueing up to be featured in a pastoral poem by someone who lives in a windmill and wears Arran knit sweaters in winter. A vision of bucolic loveliness to lure you away from your urgent lifestyles, without any narration to indicate that every single gingerbread cottage on view is owned by an escaped Londoner bitching about the absence of coffee bars or bus services.

So what exactly is wrong with our cities in general and London in particular? Why the headlong rush to give up the melee of convenience and violence that is a bristling capital city of the 21st century? One of my friends told me that one of the reasons he moved from London, where he worked as a high profile architect, was to get away from other high profile architects, whose sole topics of conversation were the interesting clients they were working for and the even more interesting clients they would cheerfully drop them to work for instead. Another reason was money; not the lack of it nor the difficulty of gaining access to more of it but, rather, the measurement of it as a status symbol along with everything that entailed; the postcode you could afford to live in, the daily commute to the postcode you could absolutely not afford to live in, but were required to work in instead, your choices of home furnishings, mobile phones, personal digital assistants and mp3 player. All good reasons to go, but it struck me that his main complaint was that all his London drinking buddies were obviously self-obsessed braying wankers, in which case he would have been a lot better off simply not answering the phone. As it is, he made a wise decision to seek out simpler pleasures in the country because he’s very happy now, which just goes to show that the only path to follow is your own.

And this is my path and that’s my point. I wrote this book because I was tired of being told how shit London is and being asked when I was thinking of moving out, as if it was the destiny of us all to go and live somewhere more settled, less dynamic. As if cities were only for the young. As if I have to accept the dull orthodoxy that leads people to pasture just when their social experience of the world makes human interaction become an ever more exciting prospect.

Every day, I wake up and am excited by the prospects that London holds. I make it my business to see what is going on, take notice of the extraordinary details carved into the architecture and the mix of hope, despair, fear and excitement written onto people’s faces.  Everyone over the age of eight knows that the streets of London aren’t paved with gold, but many adults make the same kind of mistake about the countryside – namely that Rose Cottage awaits them in rural Britain. That it is quiet, that the people are friendlier, that a babbling brook and a life of rich and easy contentment is on offer in the country.

Well, perhaps it is time to grow up and smell the compromise. Everywhere is a trade off, nowhere is perfect and that includes the countryside. The things you have to give up are not just easy retail convenience and public transport; there’s far more to it than that. I lived in Cornwall for twenty years and my time there was a long succession of short-term jobs.  I had no career and, therefore, no interest in any of those jobs, beyond adopting them as a holding position until things became more cheery. My guiding purpose to getting up every day was simply to make ends meet, to get by, to buy food, to pay the mortgage. I was on a treadmill and I didn’t even have the luxury of escape as I was, apparently, destitute in paradise.

But paradise – where perfect happiness may be found – is not necessarily a place. It is, rather, a state of mind, a way of being. For me it meant doing what I wanted to do, pleasing myself, having a happy life. This is what happened when I got there.

Capital Letters

It may strike you as a controversial statement, but living in the country is deeply stressful. After all, there has been a rash of coffee-table TV lifestyle shows lately, all encouraging us to up-sticks to the sticks. According to the Countryside Agency, there is an echo of reality in these reality shows: a million relocated in the last ten years alone and, it appears, there's plenty more to come. Almost 8 million of us watch the exploits of hapless couples bombing down the A30 in 4x4s, while a sneering narrator points out the problems and cynically implies their eventual failure. You can do without the film crew and the carping commentator, but move out of town, the programmes suggest, and your days as grimy Northern Liner are numbered. You will no longer need to drink water that has, at some time, passed through the urinary tract of someone living in your road. Simple acts of unsolicited friendliness - like a smile or an attempt at a bus stop conversation - will stop drawing the same suspicion as an abandoned holdall on the tube. Never see that scared blank stare again, the one that makes pissing in your water polite by comparison. But it's all very well for mid-to-late careerists who want to take things a bit easier, rear small humans or glory in the thick odour of shit. They have their reasons, after all. Reasons as robust as the two tonnes of Teutonic engineering they point their children to school in, so good luck to them. But if you live in the country already, it's a different story. Living in the back of beyond is expensive, careers suffer and what jobs there are are usually badly paid. To cap it all, the alleged rural bonuses of farm-fresh food, peace and quiet and olde world friendliness may be harder to find than a regular bus service. Fresh as the moment... It is perhaps not widely enough acknowledged that the link between food and your mouth is a lot more complicated than a pan of boiling water and a fork. City folk are paradoxically more aware of this state of affairs. Sure, they know nothing about bastard trenching and probably think that animal husbandry is a euphemism for barely legal farmyard action, but they regard themselves as informed about the packaging, distribution and sales processes that actually dictate how fresh the food ends up. In the country, these processes take at least a day longer. That day is the day country-bound food spends in the city. After some truck journeys, and a warehouse or two, it arrives at the rural supermarket in time for the closed sign and tomorrow's wilting display of laughably unfresh produce. Peace and quiet You can forget peace and quiet, as well: the country can be extremely noisy. First off, there's church bell ringing practise, a dissonant racket so ungodly, you are left with the voice of Satan ringing in your ears. Blow up the God damn church. Do it. Do it now. Then there's the thunderous roar of tractors, more gunfire than the Bronx and the casual assassination of animals for fun to contend with, but by far the noisiest parts of the country are all the areas colonized by city folk. And that's because, like the chip-inhaling, Watney's guzzling Brit-crims bunging up the Costa Del Brinksmat, many exiled urban warriors make the mistake of towing their urgent old lives down with them. There are those who are still obviously plugged into some kind of Starbucks Matrix. Brusque and hurried, they point their body into a coffee shop and issue a paragraph-length, intricately detailed order for a hot beverage that betrays their inherent inability to leave any whisp of uncertainty uncrushed.
Fortunately, while terribly adept at synchronising a Palm Pilot, firing nannies and talking bollocks in meetings, their life runs on the kind of precise routine unfavoured by the brutal realities of the country mindset, and many run back to town, claiming the countryside is complete shit. Then there are the nautical types. Most often encountered in rural yacht havens, these Ted Heath look-alikes – each and every one an amiable buffoon – ooze the braying twittery of the wealthy classes. More used to issuing commands in the teeth of a gale, the nautical type approach everything with the gravitas of a cruise liner in a duck pond. When not on the water, there's nothing they like better than tacking their way to the bar in waterside pubs, illuminated by the dim glow of lamps stolen from marker buoys in the channel. With staff rendered deaf by their customers, the easiest way to order a pint in a yachties pub is to stand at the door and signal with flags. Finally there is the dewy-eyed Gaian Airhead. Labouring under the latest buzz-word of "Slippies" or Sloane-Hippies, people with this personal outlook parade their cock-eyed, crumpled spirituality in the country while retaining a well-appointed pied-à-terre, luxuriously furnished with unsustainable tropical hardwood knick-knacks, which are often crafted by kicked orphans in basement sweatshops. From their rural second homes the Airheads front local chapters of green organisations and tirelessly campaign to halt all forms of progress and development that would spoil the view from their balcony. There you have it. Suddenly your elysian vision of babbling brooks, wild woods and bucolic simplicity has turned to shit of which, incidentally, there is also an ample amount awaiting you. You may decide that you don't want to move after all and who could blame you? You may have already suspected that the countryside is inconvenient, expensive and bereft of opportunity, but what might come as a surprise is that it is full of the kind of urban vermin that you already live next door to. What's the point? Not even the Northern Line seems quite so bad. Just remember not to smile at anyone and, whatever you do, don't drink the water.