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Confessions of an Ex-Londoner

10 March 14 words: Ben Cooper
"There is, I think, an insecurity, an inferiority complex towards the capital that causes the rest of us to behave very oddly indeed"

Are we living under the shadow of that there London?

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?' I’ll not even start on that one.

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 people explained to me why London is the best city in the world, (‘it just is’).

But don’t get me wrong. I had the time of my life. 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. You feel part of a huge, global mass of activity that somehow works, with you playing a miniscule but tangible part.

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.

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 half three in the morning, in the rain and sleet, when you’re seven sheets to the wind.

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. 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 couple 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 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.

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. 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 of 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 into 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.

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 and binge-drinking hen dos, 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.

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 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.

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-awareness, it’s giving London a lot of credit in its absence, and more worryingly, doing this town a real injustice.

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.

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. And nowhere will ever be Nottingham either, we all know that. It’s 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.

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.

Ben Cooper's website

Front page image courtesy of Gabor Rosa, via Creative Commons

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