The View From London

11.11.135:45 AM ET

London: Love It or Leave It?

It’s got great restaurants and world-class museums—as well as soaring rents, crowded buses, and nonstop construction work. What’s a lifelong Londoner to do?

It’s more than two centuries ago that Samuel Johnson made the observation: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life…” (He goes on, “for there is in London all that life can afford.”)

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you choose? Unfortunately, we don’t get a say in where we’re born or where we grow up. Geographical decisions begin when you take a job, or apply for university, although they still depend on external, practical factors, such as where we can afford to rent or buy property, where our family or partner lives, where we can find work.

I was born in London and have lived here most of my life. Wherever I end my days, it’ll always be in my marrow. But it has changed a lot in recent years: battalions of buses, lorries, taxis and cars clog the centre of town, contributing to dire levels of pollution, and general malaise. On top of the near-permanent gridlock, much of London is being excavated for Crossrail, a mega new train network linking the capital with surrounding regions to the east and west. Costing billions of pounds, Crossrail is Europe's largest infrastructure construction project, with 73 miles of railway—26 miles of this in underground tunnels. Massive drilling machines are at work beneath our pavements, and whole swathes of the city centre will continue to be disrupted until the completion date of 2018.

I sometimes wonder what my great-aunt Virginia Woolf would have made of all this. One of Virginia’s greatest pleasures in London was "street-haunting"; it provided inspiration for her writing and solace when she felt depressed. She thrived on the energy of London, and suffered terribly during her nervous breakdowns, when she was moved out of her town for her health. In a low moment in 1934, she wrote: "I’m so ugly. So old. Well, don’t think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives." Now, as I walk the same streets Virginia walked, the sights are cranes and bulldozers, the sounds are pneumatic drills and emergency sirens. (For several nights now, a police helicopter has been hovering in the skies around my area; it’s a menacing noise.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising that life in London is fraught at times. Compared to the rest of the UK, our population density is insane: 5,825 people per square kilometre (against 411 in the rest of the country). The total number of people in London now exceeds 8.3 million, and our population is growing at 1.3 percent, which is double the rate of the rest of the UK. Just to add to the joys of over-crowding, we also have the highest crime rates and house prices in the country.

Compared to our European neighbours, Brits are said to be obsessed with home ownership. I have friends in Italy and Germany who happily rent, or live at home, well into their 30s. Currently the situation for first-time buyers in London is grim. With such a rapidly expanding populus, the city is undergoing a crisis, with a shortage of new homes being built, and house prices forecast to rise 23 percent in the next five years.

What with the soaring costs of living and dwindling green spaces, I begin to wonder if it’s time for a change. As a freelance writer, one only needs pen, paper, an internet connection (and some good ideas) to earn a living. I appreciate everything that London has to offer— the theatres and galleries, bookshops and poetry evenings, restaurants and museums— but is it enough to keep me here?

Just yesterday I was sitting on the top deck of a bus, gridlocked in traffic on Baker Street, wishing I was far away. As I was daydreaming about my alternative life, an email arrived from my friend J. Last year she moved to a small cottage in the Scottish Highlands. She commutes down to England two days a week to teach at a large university, but apart from that it’s all "lochs and mountains and scudding clouds." Other friends have left London for larger homes and gardens, better schooling, but I have neither children nor dogs. In theory, at least, I’m free as a bird. Moving out of the capital shouldn’t be irrevocable, but these days, that’s what it feels like: as J says, "once you sell up and leave London, you effectively close the door behind you."

The no. 10 bus inched forward to the next set of red traffic lights, then juddered to a halt. I stared at the November rain, the grimy London streets, and the look of sheer stress on the face of every passer-by. Is this what we mean by ‘quality of life’? I know I’d miss all this if I left it behind: I’d miss cycling along the Thames, running in Hyde Park; I’d miss seeing the Dome of St Paul’s on the cluttered skyline. But increasingly I long for space to think, air to breathe.

Of course this isn’t particular to London: most city-dwellers long to escape at times. If only we could implement a national homes-swap agreement, say three weeks in the city balanced by a week in the country. I’d happily swap my flat in central London for a remote cottage on the Cornish coast, or in the Welsh valleys… Any takers?!

For now, I think I’ve got a few more years of London-living left in me. But if and when I do move out of the capital, it won’t be because I’m "tired of life" as Samuel Johnson said, simply that I’m tired of chaos and crowds. Another observation—attributed to a certain Lord Balfour in the 1940s—seems more apt: "London is a splendid place to live in for those who can get out of it."


Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.