Wednesday 29 May 2024

Under the Glass: He Who is Tired of London...


My least favourite Johnson quote is also perhaps his most quoted. I’m not sure if it’s my least favourite because it’s my least favourite - a form of quote overplay. It is of course; “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

The quote was on the wall of the Museum of London, on the sign outside Dr Johnson’s House, on a range of fridge magnets and Oyster card holders - and on dozens and dozens of quaint pictures and ‘quotes’ images.

More completely, Johnson said; “you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

Well, intellectual or not, I’m leaving London. I’m even willing. Not just willing, but looking forward to it.

I moved to London almost twenty years ago to pursue a Masters in writing. I’d actually got confused over which university had accepted me and found myself living quite the distance from the university. Not that it mattered much, I only went one day a week. The rest of the time I was working thirteen-hour shifts at The White Swan, a Wetherspoons just outside Highbury and Islington Tube station (and a few minutes walk from both Kit Smart and Goldsmith’s retreat in Cannonbury - but I didn’t know about them yet).

I kept a letter to the local newspaper about the place. 

“If anyone required encouragement to give up smoking and excessive drinking, I suggest they walk past the White Swan at Highbury Corner any day of the week. Never have I seen such an unpleasant looking and miserable group of people as those gathered outside - their features and demeanour showing the ravages of a lifetime of alcohol and tobacco abuse. It really does serve as an excellent deterrent.” Seems a bit harsh.

Whilst still doing my Masters, I got a job at The Big Bus Company as a Tour Guide. Learning the huge amount of information during a beautiful May fortnight was a wonderful thing. It was helped that the person training me was the very talented Miles Tredinnick. The experience of actually being an tour guide on an open top bus was less enjoyable. Whilst May had been glorious, the summer itself was a bit of a washout, the teams on the pavement kept filling the bus with customers who didn’t speak the same language as me and I got into an argument about some time off I’d booked four months in advance.

It was then I lived in Putney. I was the lodger of a ninety-four year old Hungarian Jewish lady who’d survived the Nazis and the Soviets and claimed to have invented those shirts with the stripy bodies but solid collar and cuffs. She was now an artist, a member of the Royal Academy. She was also a lifeline to me when I lost the bus job and was in a long period of unemployment before I got a job at Whittard’s Coffee and Tea, until it went under two months later. 

The next job I had was at ‘The London Bridge Experience and Tombs’. I was essentially a barker, trying to get people who were on their way to work to come into a shitty rip off of The London Dungeons. I was dressed in a ripped suit with white face and black eyes, blood made from corn syrup was smeared over me. Once I had to wash some windows with a seven foot tall man and a little person. The owners never remembered my name and called me Christopher Biggens. They essentially dropped me when I was off with Swine Flu, which I caught on my birthday.

I’ve only been mugged once. Not long after, some people tried to break into the house but I scared them away with lots of noise - these both happened when I lived in the posh area of Putney. In all the supposed rough (idiots would say ‘no-go’) areas I’ve lived, I’ve been safe. Only in Putney was I ever threatened.

There was the time in the house in Harlesden when a dead body showed up on the lawn. He’d got drunk and decided to get home by climbing over all the fences, bashed his head and died from the head injury in our garden while we were asleep. That was an eventful house. For a time, I lived with a rickshaw driver/drug dealer who’d be full of ecstasy and come onto me when I was getting ready for work. For a time, the house filled up with vets and sick animals. A Charlie Chaplin impersonator lived down the street and would walk to work swinging his cane.

Then there was the bad flat. I rented it off a man and it wasn’t his flat. The owner turned up one day demanding to know who I was. The boiler didn’t work for three months. Everything was filthy. There was a man running a pirate radio station and every plugged in speaker in the flat gently played the sounds of reggae, even if not actually turned on. I did have one lovely Saturday chatting with a guy and drinking pints of chilled vodka. 

This place has been much cosier, though oddness still seeps in. I’ve gained a relative financial security for the first time in my adult life and, thanks to Dr Johnson’s House and The Reviews Hub, I’ve been able to got to all sorts of cultural, theatrical and other events for free. 

There really is all life can afford in London, but frequently, the only life I can afford are the difficult, uncomfortable and scrabbly bits. The fact is, Johnson is right, London is wonderful and contains a bit of everything. It’s just, for those not blessed with a yearly pension from the monarch, the sides of life it most often shows are the sides that tire you out eventually. He seems to forget it’s the same city he wrote about in his younger days where you had to make a will before stepping out the door. I have loved my life in London, I reckon I’ve squeezed about as many drops out of it as a poor person can, and I’m looking forward to building a new life somewhere a little smaller, more comfortable and cheaper.

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