Geographical snobbery is a two-way street, and for this nowhere man, whose life has meandered back and forth from London, it’s bullshit in both directions
This piece appeared in Nottingham cultural magazine Left Lion in March 2014
It seems someone has to be the bad guy, so I guess I’ll be. I’m a bit of a nowhere man anyway, so I’ve not got that much to lose.
I’m in a tumultuous three-way relationship, which got really complicated when I moved from Nottingham to London to follow my dream of being a journalist. No sooner had I exited the M1, than I found myself fielding some rather bizarre questions about the city I’d turned away from.
‘Shottingham? Is it true that there are more guns there than anywhere in the country?’ Hmmmm….
‘Nottingham, that’s very bleak isn’t it?’ If you want to believe that, go ahead.
‘Have you ever seen a drive-by shooting?’Oh for fuck’s sake.
Even convincing people that Nottingham isn’t in the North of England was a push (although that’s a classic bit of sport for Londoners, who love to bait the provincial simpletons by playing dumb).
Even while I was there, I felt the pangs of anti-Londonitis hacking my nerves. I kept my feelings to myself while colleagues in the media sneered at, well, any city but London, and actively conspired to favour the capital in their editorials and features.
I bit my tongue when the blazer-clad Mayfair property agents I found myself writing about gloated that they had convinced xx company from Zurich to take London office space although they’d actually requested Birmingham or Manchester, and sucked it up when people explained to me why London is the best city in the world, (‘it just is’). Although I couldn’t help correcting the girl who said the population was 17 million, causing much bitterness and a slightly bizarre defiance from her.
But don’t get me wrong. I had the time of my life. It was such a trip when I first arrived, and stepped out to explore the streets of Holborn where I lived above a pub, in a mice-filled apartment with uneven flooring and bus passengers peering in through the top-deck level window if I forgot to close the curtains in the morning and walked around my room in a towel, or less.
From that first base camp I could walk anywhere in Zone One without thinking about it. I strolled for hours, often with camera in hand, down to the Thames to watch the city lights twinkling on that dirty old river, or through the snaking shadowy back streets between Bishopsgate and Brick Lane, where Jack the Ripper once prowled, feeling the power around me and the splintered echoes of centuries of thundering, capital activity.
Between wild nights out in Camden and Soho, a few good working lunches at the Oxo Tower, Champagne receptions at the top of Centre Point, lazy Sundays on Primrose Hill or black-tie dos on Park Lane, I’m not going to lie, it was a blast.
Visiting is one thing, but when you live in London, when it’s your city, however many millions of transients, travellers and chancers you’re sharing it with, it’s a whole different sensation.
And that’s all well and good, but there are major downsides too. It’s one thing having all this world class resplendence on the other side of the door, but if you’re trying to make £9.32 last another three days before you get paid and you can’t even afford to top up your Oyster Card, somehow when you hear that Lichtenstien: a Retrospective is on at the Tate Modern, or the Killers are playing at the Roundhouse, or the Ivy are doing a special lunchtime offer where it’s only £25 for three courses, you may as well live in Nairobi for all it excites you. If anything, it’s more painful – talk about so near but so far away.
I’d often spend Saturday in a bit of a zombified state, exhausted and pale from a week of burning the candle at both ends (again), hoping a great plan would suddenly come to me as I did my laundry and groaned through another hangover, trying to locate those great Time Out-esque ideas I’d been scribbling down on mental scraps of paper somewhere in my tired brain since Monday.
‘You cram all the news into three or four hurried pints before you both have to scramble to opposite points of the compass, the slurring guys in suits on the tube’
Most of my socialising was done in the week. Saturday and Sunday are precious possessions to Londoners whose working week whizzes away in a tiring haze of queues, tubes, frantic streets, emails, meetings, take-away coffees, sushi boxes, freesheets, after-work drinks, queues, tubes, frantic streets, repeat, repeat.
So you end up treating Wednesday or Thursday as the new Saturdays, and finally see that mate from uni you’ve been trying to arrange a sodding beer with for six months.
You cram all the news about work/love life/money/what-everyone-else-is-up-to-these-days into three or four hurried pints before you both have to scramble to opposite points of the compass, the slurring guys in suits on the tube. Then you grab a ready meal in a chilly Sainsbury’s that’s about to close, zap it in the microwave as your gumtree housemate hovers, passively-aggressively nagging about the dishes, before glugging down a pint or two of water and diving under the covers with a full stomach, praying the Thursday hangover isn’t too bad, or at least too obvious.
It can be utterly draining, especially when you’re skint. After a big one on a Saturday the reality can suddenly dawn on you that you’re in some distant spot of a huge interconnected matrix, only it’s not quite as connected at 3.37 am, in the rain and sleet, when you’re seven sheets to the wind.
You stand, grey-faced with an aching head, rain-soaked and miserable with 23 other drunken refugees, waiting for night bus 1 of 2, because you can’t afford a cab. The journey can take two hours, provided you don’t fall asleep on said night bus and find yourself in Zone 7, on the verge of tears at the hideousness of the fact that after a two hour journey through the night, you’re still nowhere near your bed.
This is the reality of London: the highs are higher and the lows are lower.
Fast forward to my life these days; back in Nottingham after all of that madness. Things are much nicer, much easier. It takes me 20 minutes to walk home to Hyson Green after a night out, or maybe a five minute cab journey. Half the time I don’t need to arrange to see friends because I’ll bump into them in the street/pub/someone else’s house. My mum lives a c0uple of miles away and a coffee is only ever a phone call away, my housemates are my friends, and we even have a spare room where Kate and I can work from home.
I’ve got my favourite haunts – The Dragon, The Gladstone, The Lincolnshire Poacher, some of the best pubs you’ll find anywhere – most of which are within a mile or two of my house, and with my rent and bills a nice round £400 lower, I’ve usually got money to splash out on the odd dinner and even – good lord – clothes now and then. People thank bus drivers where I come from, you can easily get chatting to complete strangers in a pub, call in at friends’ houses unnanounced, and the people who work in your favourite cafes start making your ‘usual’ as soon as you walk through the door.
‘For many St Pancras is treated like a portal into a great void, a rift in the space-time continuum where people and objects only remorph into reality on the return journey’
One of the only problems, for me, is trying to work out my own sense of belonging. A lot of my friends and work contacts – on both sides of the M25 – are convinced I’m just biding my time in this little provincial purgatory, until I can return, reinvigorated, and once again turn my back on Nott’num.
And maybe I will (not the turning my back part), maybe I won’t. But it’s no longer the be-all to me, the only place that really exists, as perhaps my more excitable self once believed.
Plenty back down there in London even seem a little vexed that I’ve dared to leave the Big Smoke, as though St Pancras is in fact just a portal into a great void, a rift in the space-time continuum where people and objects only remorph into reality on the return journey.
But – and here’s where the bad guy comes out – geographical snobbery works both ways, you know. And it’s bullshit in both directions. I’ve had some truly bizarre conversations about London since I got back, just like I did about Nottingham when I got down there.
Without inhibition people will vent their loathing, even rage, towards London at the moment you mention its name, and even, I swear, show a disdainful glare at you if you say you live/lived there. Where I once defended Nottingham gallantly against a certain kind of snobbery, I find myself being the only one sticking up for London in the face of an entirely different type of vitriol.
The fact that I’m a bit of a nowhere man makes me sad sometimes. But generally it’s just fine by me. I don’t see the point in tying your identity too much to your geographical location. It’s all one anyway.
London-heads get far too excited, and take on a blinkered smugness – yes I probably did it myself – about living in the Big Smoke, as though anyone who doesn’t live there must somehow be joking.
It’s a deeply narcissistic city. A huge proportion of Londoners are, like I was, out-of-towners, sucked in to the black hole that claims much of the rest of the talent and energy from the rest of the country. But they seem to feel a constant need to discuss themselves and their city, to continuously reaffirm its status and secure its dominance.
Yes, it’s a great city. But many seem to forget that there are lots and lots of great cities. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of them – Beijing, Paris, San Fransisco, Berlin, Ulan Bator, Moscow, Lisbon, Barcelona, Hanoi, Warsaw, Dublin for example – and I’m bloody glad I did. It seems somewhat silly that so many consider London to be the centre of the universe, when there’s a whole world out there.
Billboards on the tube scream back messages about London’s finest qualities to the converted. The national media, based almost entirely in the capital – save for a sad cluster of hapless BBC journos who have been dragged, sniveling, to the wilds of Manchester – does its best to peddle a view that London is a separate country almost, outside of which are miserable little towns filled with pasty chavs, binge-drinking hen dos and benefit-scroungers, with only the odd sensational story about a missing child in Wales or a suspicious house-fire in Derby to justify dispatching reporters grudgingly up the M1.
When you live there you realise how much you’re being favoured, in every possible way. Businesses and governments really push the boat out for the capital. You just need to look at Australian shopping centre giant Westfield, which has left a big empty hole in the ground in Bradford for the last seven years, and totally abandoned its plans for Nottingham after 11 years of stringing the city along, while at the same time delivering two whacking great big centres in London, one East one West.
You feel the sun shining on your face a little more when you live in London. Your life becomes more high profile. In films, on TV, in the papers, advertising and even in music, your own streets and hangouts are constantly name-dropped, and you feel, somehow that everything you’re doing is in a greater, more important context than before.
Which is all crap of course, but that’s how you can be tempted to feel – and how many do feel without even a hint of self-awareness – if you don’t check yourself from time to time.
What many people forget, or choose to ignore, is that essentially it is just a city. It is bigger and more thundering perhaps, but it’s a big old place full of people living, working, eating, shagging, sleeping, dying, just like anywhere else.
The big top-shelf attractions are often more appreciated by the tourists and newbies than anyone else. The locals, who, despite on occasion feeling compelled to take to Twitter with something like ‘Looking hot tonight #London’ after a few glasses of wine, generally are just nice normal people keeping their heads down, getting on with the Monday to Friday routine like the rest of us.
And, I think, people outside London too often forget that as well. There is, I think, an insecurity, an inferiority complex towards the capital that causes the rest of us to behave very oddly indeed.
‘The fact that there is a promotions company called ‘I’m not from London’ suggests that the capital is never far away from many peoples’ minds here’
Take Nottingham for example (purely hypothetically of course). A great city by any standards, in parts it is stunningly beautiful, in others rough and ready but with real, feisty character. Great bars, loads of live music, fashion, art and creative talent, some lovely warm people, some scumbags, and plenty in-between. A fantastic array of restaurants, some of the best shopping in the country, a genuine multicultural hub with dozens of nationalities calling it home, some of the best sporting, academic and scientific facilities around, and a wonderful balance between big-city liveliness and small-town closeness.
In short, it has nothing to worry about and plenty to be proud of.
But I feel, in certain circles, there is a strange shadow over Nottingham. A self-imposed contest between it and the overbearing city down the M1. The fact that there is a music promotions company called ‘I’m not from London’, or a ‘Nottingham Underground’ teatowel available to buy, suggests that the capital is never far away from many peoples’ minds here.
Why are such comparisons drawn? Again, with very little self-awarness, it’s giving London a lot of credit in its absence, and more worryingly, doing this town a real injustice.
And this armchair psychologist suspects deep down there are some who would love to have made the leap to the capital at one point in their life but, in lieu of that, instead choose to dismiss it with platitudes about prices, noise, and rudeness. It’s another form of snobbery, a strange, ‘If you can’t join them, beat them’ attitude. There, I said it.
But it’s actually a detrimental, self-defeating type of snobbery. Nottingham has far too much to offer to waste it on introspection or living in anyone else’s shadow. So many superb qualities that having been away and come back, are even more clear to me now.
A little time, a few knocks, and the few scraps of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years have made me realise that life is about who you’re with, what you’re doing, how much you’re in control, whether you’re travelling along the groove you want to be in, and last of all where you are.
Give me a few hours to yell rubbish and laugh inanely in a shabby old pub with good beers, good friends and real people – maybe throw in a dart board – and I’m happy. I can live without German techno nights in Shoreditch, wallet-draining West-End benders and moustachioed synth bands playing a gig in Dalston, Nottingham or anywhere else for that matter.
This confession is therapy for me, the unravelling of seven years’ worth of tangled introspection. And now here I am, an ex-Londoner, enamoured again with a city which, if I’m allowed to, I’m happy to call home once again.
I find myself down in the Big Smoke quite often these days, plucked into the great vortex for bits of work and the odd big one with friends. And when I am down, I usually love being back. It’s almost like finding the city all over again, as I drift and wander, freed from the daily hassles that perhaps have tainted my view.
I am not attacking Nottingham here, I love this place and I’m supporting it in my own way. But if I did want to do Nottingham down by pointing out its smallness and limitations compared to London, I couldn’t imagine a better way than the ‘Nottingham underground’ map.
It’s a useless, masochistic comparison which just highlights the gulf, a bit like taking a map of the US and swapping the name of each state for a county of England.
Perhaps unfairly, but just like in most countries, our capital will carry on growing and getting all the glory, and some of its people will always be a little smug at having the top spot, convinced it is all down to them.
But who cares? Nottingham will never be London. Stopping the pointless comparisons, however ‘ironic’ would be a good place to start.
But nowhere will ever be Nottingham, we all know that. It’s is a unique and magnetic place, but it is what it is. The sooner we accept that, step out of this shadow, and let the city’s strong points really shine the better.