A photo of London
Did you know that there is a place called Oxfordshire, which produced the man who won the Second World War? And then there's this other place, called Liverpool, which produced the most famous rock band that ever lived? Or that – in "Edinburgh" – inventive new restaurants open every couple of months, serving mains that don’t cost more than your car? Most importantly, did you know that living in all of those places costs at least 40 percent less than it does in London?
So why don't we all leave London and move to a whole other country – Britain?
There's a lot of noise swirling around at the moment about how foreign-money-millionaires are using our capital's grand old Edwardian houses as dirty cash pits, about "Shoreditchification", about coffee and bikes and child poverty, about Tinder and knife crime. About how Ken Livingstone, Ronnie Kray and Kate Moss have been replaced by Boris Johnson, Nick Candy and Cara Delevingne. It's become the story of our time – London's transformation from a smattering of villages populated by whistling Rastas and rag-and-bone men, to a futurist battlefield of blood-money Bugattis and skyscrapers shaped like prison weapons.
It's still a fascinating, beautiful, weird city – it always has been and you'd hope it always will be. But there can be little doubt from either side of the great Tesco/Itsu divide that the jolly "London Town" of old is an image only clung to by people whose idea of culture is fucking Carnaby Street. These days, London seems less like a town and more like a sprawling, unforgiving megalopolis where the winner takes it all and the loser moves to Ilford.
So why do we keep moving to the city at almost double the rate we do anywhere else in the UK? What if we moved to a better place where misery wasn't so up and jobs weren't so down? A place that wasn't the most expensive place to live in the entire world, and that wasn't ruled over by a blue-blooded Il Duce who thinks that busking regulations are a more pressing concern than rent control? There's a gathering sense that London is no longer the place to be, let alone the only place to be.
Yet aside from university students desperate for a taste of that Scream Pub life, you simply don’t see the same kind of demand to live in Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol or any of Britain’s other great towns and cities. Sure, there have been population increases in all of these places, but populations are increasing everywhere. London, however, is the only city that people will half-kill themselves to feel a part of. The only city where people will tolerate spending 70 percent of their wages on rent alone.
I'm not playing at being some Michael Winner character here. I don't believe for a second that the North of England begins at Oxford Circus. I don't think the problem is that other British towns and cities are "shit holes", or that the people are backwards, or that they're too far away from the action. I actually think the problem is the total opposite of that: that the UK’s other cities – or the people in charge of running them, at least – are trying to be too much like London. They've become so busy trying to create the "Canary Wharf or the North”, or whatever, that they've misplaced that vital sense of independence which cities need in order to thrive, to develop their own identities.
At the risk of receiving a barrage of patronising tweets from town planners and BBC employees about how friendly the people of Salford are, it seems to me that a lot of the UK’s great cities’ “regeneration” plans really just mean, “Let’s throw up a Cote by the river and a theatre where they can stage Waiting For Godot every couple of years – that'll keep the rents up.”
A photo of everywhere in the UK by Tom Johnson
Why do so many people choose to bankrupt themselves in Angel, when they could be living the high life with the Angel of the North? For me, this is the root of Britain's cramped malaise. The path goes as follows: You fear you're missing out by not living in London, you move to London, you realise that because everyone else wants to live there too it's nigh-on impossible unless your dad owns an oil field in Dagestan. You begin to hate yourself for moving there, the life you've found in the city and London itself.
The solution to this shit won't just come via electing new officials (though it might not be a bad start) but by sharing the load; taking the emphasis off London and working to make other cities desirable in their own way. With that, we might find a route out of our current geographical Groundhog Day of chain pubs, overpriced pizzas and no discernible youth culture whatsoever.
Alas, this is unlikely to happen because Britain seems to lack any interest in its youth. Not the "young", but the youth – people who are too old for bedtime stories but too young for the pub. It doesn't matter if they live in Middlesbrough or Mile End, these kids aren't going to go to a Joan Miro exhibition or spend £40 of their own money to see Rufus Wainwright in a concert hall, no matter how much the local council's culture tsars might want them to. They want clubs, parks, discos, football, fingering, skate parks and shopping centre water features around which to forge a semblance of collective identity. This is a list of teenage demands that is pretty much universal and has been since young desires centred around more essential things, like not having to work in a chimney all day in order to afford some bread. But because the things they want are hard to monetise, they're fucked. If you're not lucky enough to get your crowbar round the back of a Banksy, the only way to make proper money out of a youth club is to bulldoze it and put up a Costa or an apartment block.
What does this mean for Britain's cities? By aping the great sell-off of London, our local governments and town planners are sowing the seeds of a culture in which everyone who lives in a city – any British city – is a kind of middle-aged, middle-income Tony Montana, tired, paranoid recluses subsisting on Peroni, Dexter box sets and M&S meal-for-two deals, staring off their inch-deep new build balconies towards the suburbs beyond, as Clean Bandit plays gently off the iPhone speaker dock.
The great Jonathan Meades calls this type of bland, broadsheet-approved cultural renewal “the Bilbao effect”, referring to the Spanish industrial city that was beaten into being a "cultural mecca" when authorities whacked a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in the middle of it. In Britain, this vision manifested itself in plonking Pizza Expresses in old dockyards; we homogenised as well as gentrified. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that a city is more than the sum of its Richard Rogers pieces and Gerhard Richter exhibitions.
Photo of a kid hanging out in Liverpool's Baltic District by Tom Johnson
The "trendy” parts of most British cities seem to have been designed by committee, a kind of Pret 'n' Primark pogrom. The truth is that, while these things might make your city seem sophisticated and modern, posh flats and a branch of Carluccio’s aren't going to save anyone from Cameron's cultural sleeper-hold – they're just pushing the fingers in further. What British cities really need to do is go their own way and form their own exciting and inclusive takes on the British experience. We need to make the reality of metropolitan living outside the capital one that will soak up all the people who've grown sick of paying thousands of pounds in rent a month to live within vomiting distance of Meat Mission.
I'm sure the idea that London is becoming Britain's only viable cultural and financial city will be confused with snobbery, but the city’s current hegemony is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that needs to be looked at honestly to be stopped. In the 80s and 90s, the North West was surely Britain's cultural capital. Thatcher might have torn up the industry, but, between them, Manchester and Liverpool came to define the national zeitgeist. Manchester alone had Factory Records, the Hacienda, A Guy Called Gerald, the Stone Roses, Eric Cantona, This Life and Oasis. Liverpool had a similarly impressive output when it came to music, plus they introduced the casuals look to the rest of the country – a style that has managed to stick ever since then, from Dover to Darlington, Northwich to Norwich. A few years later, Bristol gave us the Wild Bunch crew, trip-hop and Neneh Cherry.
There was a time when hip Americans and Europeans would go to Manchester rather than London, and the whole idea of Kevin & Perry was that they were north London kids who'd gone to Manchester because it was cooler. Why? Because Tony Wilson hated London and the whole point was to do something that was totally separate from what was happening in the capital. It’s no coincidence that this rejection of London coincided with Manchester’s cultural boom. Now, the Hacienda has been converted into luxury flats, and the Night & Day has been threatened with closure after complaints from new locals surprised by the noise output of a gig venue. If things keep going this way, the idea of Manchester ever being the UK's beating cultural heart is going to seem disorientatingly weird to the next generation, like seeing Osama bin Laden turn up on Soccer AM.
There are, of course, (a very small amount of) exceptions to this rule. Recent years have seen the growth of an exciting and resolutely Glaswegian scene – a scene that gave birth to Numbers records, Hudson Mohawke, Jackmaster et al, who are now at the forefront of the whole club game. And having spent last weekend in Liverpool, I began to see the shoots of a new, proletarian “party city” emerging, especially around the Baltic district, which shares a few similarities with the East London of old, yet manages to exist with a crucial inclusive spirit that doesn't totally destroy what was there before.
When you're in the Baltic district, you don't feel like you're in a place that is being "regenerated" or "renewed", because these are gentrification's favourite synonyms for killing something old and putting something completely different in its place. In the Baltic district, you don't feel like you're in a place that's dying, you feel like you're witnessing a place undergoing genuine resuscitation.
The Stone Roses, a famous band from a place called "Manchester"
I don't think it's any coincidence that the UK’s most exciting scenes are emerging in cities that have always remained slightly detached from the rest of the UK (and, in Glasgow’s case, a city that probably doesn't even want to be a part of it for much longer). I'm not saying: "Glasgow is great, Manchester is shit,” like some kind of regional talkSPORT piss-taker, but some cities are currently setting a better precedent than others.
Part of me wonders whether Britain is just too tribal – too at war with itself to really implement this kind of cultural spread. If somehow those ideas of "soft southern shites”, "northern scum" and "sheep shaggers" are too ingrained in our collective psyche. If we've all been sold this lie that London is where the cognoscenti live, and the rest of the country is for the serfs.
There seems to be more choice available throughout the rest of the world to people who can’t afford to live in the central epicentre but don’t want to feel like they’re living a secondary existence. If New York City is becoming too much, there's always California, or Portland, or Chicago, or Austin. Places that won't make you feel as though you're missing out on something, or simply trying to recreate New York on a smaller scale. (Not that it's even the capital, of course.) Places that shout their identity rather than disguise it beneath a gingham table cloth.
Maybe the rise of the provinces won’t come from slow regeneration, but from the ashes of a failed city. Maybe we need a Berlin or a Detroit, places that for various reasons have suffered catastrophic collapses, but that contribute an awful lot to our cultural understanding of the world.
Britain's second cities are great places. They're still full of those wonderful idiosyncrasies that gave their names weight across the world. They're still the places that gave us bassline, David Hockney, the Smiths, Irvine Welsh… just about everyone bar Suggs and Wiley, really. But the economy, the soul-sucking town planning, the chain store homogeneity and the potential for further nullification via high-speed rail lines are slowly sapping their souls, further raising the tide towards London.
What we need is for cities to look at London, see its protracted descent into moneyed blankness and realise that their strengths lie in their difference. Britain needs a city to rise up and realise that there's a generation of people out there who want more than stone-baked pizzas.
London might be slowly choking to death on a Rolex, but that doesn't mean the rest of the country has to as well.
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