Friday, March 08, 2013

Golden Streets

London has mesmerised me all my life. As a child it was the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and my first Wimpy, as a teenager art and music; in my early twenties I visited to see friends, occasionally applied for jobs there; finally living and working there for a brief period at the end of the 90s. Friends have come and gone but I've always found somewhere to stay or found some good reason to go. The year I lived there wasn't a particularly successful one, and I realised then that the visitor to London's golden streets sometimes had one up on the resident; staying centrally, spending freely, not returning to a bedsit at the end of a long night bus or Tube journey.

Having been down there for five or six days last week I realised this might be the longest spell I'd had in the city since I left in 1997, and that last year, amazingly, I never made it down there, perhaps the first year since I was 15.

There have been a number of provincial novels set in London over the last couple of years, NW, Hawthorn and Child, Capital, "provincial" in that they are set in highly specific locales; and that's part of London's attraction, it is still a city of villages. Drift towards one direction and chances are you'll stay there for life and unlike the hub-and-spoke transport of other cities which sees everyone channelling through a central location, London is more of a web of connections.

Travelling to Europe a lot over the last few years, I realise that this time I treated London as a foreign city, a capital like Amsterdam or Brussels, and judged it accordingly. It held up well. My bane about British transport is, I realise, primarily a local one. One can only be impressed by the way London's buses, trains and underground pass so many people around, and the Oyster card makes it easy.

London gets seen as an economic powerhouse, that must be fed at all costs, but thinking about it as a European city, I realise that London, increasingly different than the rest of the UK is the equivalent of a prosperous Scandinavian country; highly taxed; and expensive to live - but with a vibrant public and private sector investment. Crossrail is hardly avoidable even in a city as big as London, as it cleaves across the city - and this immense public investment (on top of the Olympics) unlocks an equivalent private sector investment. What you notice in London is how ever-changing it is. Despite heritage concerns and planning restrictions, London continually finds new ways of unlocking its immense potential. Yet its also a high-tax city - more higher rate tax payers than elsewhere in the UK, the high cost of housing and transport (I spent £30 in 5 days on my Oyster card; convenience coming at a cost) - and with wages, hotels, and restaurants, equally pricey, there's a case to be made that what the rest of the country needs is not costs that are driven down, but prices being driven up - and here that mix of private-public investment comes into its own.

We had the opportunity to visit the Open Data Institute, which was set up partly from ideas from Tim Berners-Lee, and it was great to see what they are doing to encourage more openness in government and public services and to promote and build next generation businesses on top of that. Yet I was struck by the fact that most things they'd done to date had happened in some form or other in Manchester over the last years, from digital art commissions, to incubating data businesses, to providing drop-ins and lectures for visitors from round the world.

Manchester, on my return, was particularly unwelcoming; a greyest of March skies hung over Stockport, yet on the way from the train to the flat, I'd arranged an impromptu drink with two friends in Didsbury; one who had left Manchester a couple of years ago, another who might well leave shortly. Here is the rub, I think. For if London's streets are golden, that metal is not forged just within the M25, its goldsmiths come from elsewhere; from around the UK, Europe and the world. London's glitter is a reflected one. During the 80s and 90s when I visited, the city felt alternately flat and vibrant depending on the time of year. At times, like the rest of the country, it barely functioned. When I went back to Manchester it was with a certain relief, that here was a city where it was much easier to live your life.

Yet, that "ease" comes with a cost. There were briefly jobs in Manchester that made a difference, and I knew plenty of people who post-2000 stayed rather than looked elsewhere; yet the inevitable drip of talent to London has now become a bit of a torrent again; and few who leave for work come back, BBC or no BBC. Oddly enough, culture, which first attracted me to London, was less in evidence during my few days here. A jazz club in Streatham was a poor equivalent to Matt & Phreds, and I couldn't find any poetry events that coincided with my stay (though I noticed that Emily Berry is reading later in the week at Foyles). Of course, London's culture can pick and choose from the world, whether it was the ODI's excellent art commission; the Lichtenstein exhibition from the Tate or the musical programme at the South Bank.

Looking at London, one can't help but be confident for Britain and even for Europe. How could this vibrancy fail, you wonder? Yet, the coalition's ignorance of economics and their ideological attraction to the USA seems to ignore the reality: that from this direction London seems closer to a well-funded, high worth, well educated Scandinavian country than an American state or middle eastern tax haven. Inevitably, the "pull" in one's country is greater than the "pull" of the European or global economy, and there's little sense that London is failing (outside of the City, which has, in so many ways, already failed).

What this means is that just as the last 15 years have been a good place to be in Manchester, I'm not sure that if I was 15 years younger I would see much to tempt me to stay in a city outside of the capital Even the much much higher cost of living for renting and buying property is replicated, to a lesser extent, in the "nice" bits of Northern cities, and what you notice in London is how reinvention (rather than regeneration) actually happens, spurred on by an integrated transport system, vast public investment, a noticeably nicer climate, and the multicultural make-up of its citizens. If I'd fallen a little out of love with London it was because friends had moved on, or because my cultural centre was increasingly here; and I still think that there's more and more vibrant grass roots activity - whether its in my digital, artistic, musical or writing lives - here than in London; inevitable perhaps given how embedded I am here. Yet though Manchester allows us to incubate, it still lacks many of the things that would allow us to grow - publishers, record companies, even access to finance, audience and media. MIF is less a showcase of Manchester than a chance to showcase IN Manchester; good for us local culture fiends, but less relevant in the long term.

I've never entirely given up the thought that I might move somewhere else at some point if the opportunity arose, but for the first time in a long time, one of those "somewhere elses" could be London. If you're tired of London, you're tired of life, said Dr. Johnson. Well not yet, good doctor, not yet.

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