Londoners have had to learn, more than ever before, to master the art of fielding pity. We’ve been on the receiving end of lots of it this year from people living in the country who care about us, which makes it worse because we’re supposed to be grateful. I’m still smarting from a few recent zingers: ‘I do feel sorry for you, being cooped up in that small house.’ ‘It must be stifling there. We’ve got a nice breeze down here.’ ‘It’s all so lovely and green. Even London must be looking quite green.’
I bat away this pity that comes across as one-upmanship, bleating: ‘It’s been fine, actually’, ‘I quite like the heat — hardly ever want it to be colder’, ‘Yes, London does actually have quite a few trees’. But I can hear my replies ringing hollow to country dwellers who are convinced they’re living the fuller, purer, gentler life, while I’ve chosen the cramped, stressful, sharp-elbowed one. Didn’t the Romantic poets drum into us in English lessons that living in the country, close to nature, was innately superior to living in the city, and made you a better person?
This pervading sense of pity under which Londoners cower has become even more acute in the Covid era, when remote working has started a brain drain. There seems even less to keep us here now that our capital city’s daily evening paper is as thin as a failing comic and even Radio 3 is about to move its ‘epicentre’ to Salford. For years (centuries, in fact) we’ve clung to Dr Johnson’s ‘tired of London, tired of life’ mantra. But are we losing the argument in a city of empty offices, pre-book-only museums, masked smothered laughs in poor struggling theatres, the offensively hideous new outcrop of skyscrapers at Nine Elms, worse-than-ever gridlock caused by Sadiq Khan’s road-closing ideology, and the drawn blinds of our second-homer friends who are hardly ever here any more? Are we insane to persist with living in a city that people are moving away from in droves to happier lives with breathtaking views of arable land from their sixth bedroom?
When it comes to Instagram photos of the two opposing habitats, there’s no contest. ‘My walk in Hyde Park’ or ‘My allotment at dawn #Hackney’ simply won’t cut it when you’re up against the rural big-hitters. Scrolling down, while sitting in my small west London garden, how can I fail to be enraptured, flattened, tortured, thrown into paroxysms of self-doubt when I gaze at an interior designer’s Dorset vegetable garden and the vast curvy hills on his dog walk? Or at the posts from Norfolk which always begin: ‘Greetings from the Old Rectory, where…’ Those ones make me feel physically sick, although I can’t resist looking at them. It’s part envy, part loathing at the self-satisfaction of it all. These photos of infinite gardens seem simultaneously to entice and exclude.
Yet I remind myself that the countryside looks best in still photographs, because nothing much happens there. What London has to offer — the stimulating hum of human life, the beauty of manmade things that speak of history and creativity — can’t really be portrayed in stills. Do I dare to pity the country dwellers back and remind them of this? Not to their faces — I’m too insecure — but I do wonder why the pity has to be all one-way. While listening to them telling me about their best-ever crop of sweet peas, I think: ‘Have you really seen no one outside your family all day?’, ‘Really — half an hour’s drive to the nearest railway station?’, ‘How many squished animals have you seen this week?’, ‘How many hours of weeding?’
I sometimes think they overstate their idyllic existence to justify their life choice. They know as well as I do that nowhere is perfect, and that includes the countryside, with its sad farmyards with sinister caravans, its holiday lets that no one wants to stay in, its mud, its dodgy wifi and its silent small towns on Sunday evenings with literally nothing to do except walk round the perimeter of the closed English Heritage site.
So as I step out on to the King’s Road and see hundreds of other people also stepping out for an evening of fun, I realise that sometimes we can, and should, just stay put and be grateful. You can be patriotic to a great city, just as you can be to your whole country. London is my mini-patriotism. The city I moved to in the early 1980s, attracted by its extraordinary sense of opportunity and possibility, deserves its loyal inhabitants who settle in for the duration of adulthood, living here fully, windows open, pots watered, dogs walked, neighbours known. A contingent of us need to remain as Londoners, not hankering to live elsewhere, but making the most of London’s 607 square miles of connecting villages reachable through a latticework of railway lines and cycle routes.
As for the question of London’s greenness, with the Thames meandering from west to east, the River Lee going northwards and the Wandle going southwards, plus the canals, you can turn left or right out of the metropolis and be on meadowy towpaths for miles and miles till you reach the adjacent home county. Strangely, I find this rus in urbe even more delicious than pure rus. It’s the surprise of it. And somehow the very fact that it’s rationed makes the beauty more intense.
Is my constant urge to walk or cycle out into the greenness a sign that I’m itching to get away? You could see it like that, dear country dwellers. But I see it as a desire to reassure myself that London is one of the most liveable places on Earth.