27 February 2013

A man gets tired of London (it happens)

Samuel Johnson, made famous in Blackadder the Third

Samuel Johnson didn't just give the English language its first dictionary – he also bestowed upon it a clever saying about London, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

It's a pithy quote with some internal symmetry, plus he's a long dead erudite man of letters – so it all checks out;as a truism. Except that it's not true; Johnson is wrong; dead (and) wrong.

The more appropriate (and truthful) quote is actually "When a man is tired of London, he is tired. Of London."
Now, I mean no disrespect: London is a great city.

It has, does, and will continue to, contribute much to the worlds of culture, literature, comedy, drinking and finance and other important and useful stuff. It's a fearsome global capital – and nobody will take that away.

But it's kind of a terrible a place to live. Unless you like being tired.

It may be a masterpiece of design, but I get tired just looking at this map

The three-year grind
I know because I lived there for three years. And the day-to-day life in that city – crowded, expensive, and overlong travel, schedules that rarely fit, people who are lovely at home and dead-eyed on the public street - well, I just didn't enjoy living there nearly as much as I thought I would. Or nearly as much as I thought I did.

Because while living in London I couldn't imagine being anywhere else – it is such a great city, I would tell myself each morning, in the early afternoon, and before going to bed exhausted at the end of the day. But living in London was an illusion; I was surviving, and little more.

There always seemed to be the promise of greater things, more and better career prospects, interesting talks and parties and film retrospectives to attend. Collaborative projects or work opportunities to explore, and cool improv and comedy shows and whims for me to be involved in, all of which would lead to greater things. They were all juuuust beyond, about to happen.

And yet, they never materialized. Because people are busy, or I was tired. Or broke. Or when cool shows or events happened, people wouldn't come. Because they're busy. Or they live in Hamster Green and the show is in Scrawnley Heath. And it's difficult to make that commute for one show.

Or I wouldn't go, because the thought of leaving the house once I'd actually managed to return seemed ludicrous.

Or something. There was always something.

And granted that's not all London's fault, but for all my busyness in the heaving roiling mass of humanity and concrete that is that city, not a whole lot materialized for me.

London gets pretty busy. It can make a guy tired.

You can't fire me  I quit
So when departure became a near-inevitability due to my redundancy and Chiara's amazing job opportunity in Amsterdam, I was forced to either resent her opportunity and keep championing the nebulous wonders of London, or accept it. So I decided that I was done with London; a conscious choice brought about by circumstances.

But flipping that switch turned out to be much easier than I thought. Once I did it, I realized that being upbeat about leaving London wasn't just something I had to tell myself to console me for being uprooted, and to steel me for the turbulent times ahead. It was true: leaving London was a good thing.

Packing in all that commuting and hustle and struggle for a simpler and mellower life in another global cosmopolitan capital – one that just happens to also be liberal, bike-friendly and quaint – well it did start to seem genuinely attractive. And so I turned on the city I had called home for years. Fuck London, I said. 

If that sounds like bitterness, well maybe it is – a little. But mostly it's relief. It's not just that I couldn't crack London, and make it work. It's that living in London had an expiry date for us, and I didn't recognize it when we went past that due date and things started smelling bad.

Only once forced to leave did I come to recognize that – while I truly enjoyed my year getting my MA in Professional Writing, and I even enjoyed some of my subsequent work, and the various collaborative creative projects and lots of other experiences big and small, and friends we made – it was past time to be finished as a London resident.

And now having been in Amsterdam for only a short while, the relocation is starting to look more and more like a good thing. A really good thing. Reality is bearing out what was initially a self-protective reflex.

Here there are ample opportunities for me to teach and perform improv, which I love more than most other things in my life. And there are chances to try some new things too. And get paid for them. And the crowds are bigger. And I've got opportunities to travel to other cities and festivals as well. And there's time and space for me to think on what I want to do next. And breathe. And ride my bike around. So far, so good.

Even better, I've found more time to write, which until recently – not coincidentally, while I was living in London – seemed like something I would get around to tomorrow afternoon, or next week, or next month, but never really came through. I don't know how Samuel Johnson found the space to concentrate and the time to just chill out in London.

Of course, London is not without its charms
How I really feel about London
Despite what impression you may have formed after reading above: I still love London. Or, more accurately: I can now love London again.

Since I've ended my London tenure, I can look back with a positive glow – I'm glad I lived there, did the things I've done, saw the wonderful things on offer, and met, hung out, worked, and played with the people I did. London was not a mixed blessing, it was just a blessing. And I'm truly happy I don't live there anymore.

And, most encouragingly, when I went back to London a couple of weekends ago I had an amazing time. It was non-stop delightful – without qualification or sarcasm.

I hung out with friends, had productive and enjoyable meetings, taught a workshop I'd been thinking about for a long time, ate great Indian, passed time in pubs and caffs with people I really like and respect, and just generally had a really really good time.

So it took a little bit of distance, and some sustained rest, but I'm now actually looking forward to my next opportunity to be in London. For a visit. In fact, I can't wait.

So maybe Johnson and I don't disagree; maybe being tired of London does mean you're tired of life. It's just that it's hard not to be tired of London when you live there. And finally – after years of living there in a state of exhaustion – I'm not tired of London.

Not anymore.

6 comments:

  1. This gives me so much to think about right now it makes my head hurt, man.

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  2. Aha! I can imagine. I'm sure these thoughts aren't making the call of SF (or elsewhere) get any quieter..

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  3. this is exactly how i feel about london right now. also maybe see you this weekend?

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    1. I sure hope so! Also: I don't know if I mentioned it, but Amsterdam's a pretty nice place to be.

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  4. Anonymous9:11 am

    Yup. You just about summed up my feelings on London, too.

    I have so many friends who live there and say how great it is, until they leave and then they admit they hated living there. It's a great place to visit but an even better place to leave.

    The violence and inhumanity lurking just beneath the surface simply scares me. I've never visited London without seeing an act of violence and I go there several times every year.

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