An Australian Explains Why London Is the Worst City on Earth
People say "London" in the same sentence as "New York, Paris, Tokyo." This is wrong.
All illustations by Ben Thomson
Now I know what you're thinking. If you're from London, or England—and you're reading an article by an Australian about how London is the worst city on Earth— you're probably thinking "LEAVE THEN." If the roles were reversed, I'd probably think that as well. And I did leave, just so you know. Also, it's fair to say you're not seeing London objectively. You're looking at it through a fun, swirly mist of patriotic nostalgia, which is how I look at Vegemite. And Vegemite is disgusting. I don't eat it because I like the taste. I eat it because of childhood.
Anyway, I found London ugly. I grew tired of working constantly but never having money. I resented the sky and its sad, broken sun. I grew tired of being ignored by everyone except Polish waiters and the cleaners from Bangladesh who, like me, had come dreaming of something greater than Sainsbury's gin hangovers and mildew. We were all so disappointed.
For Australians, London was invented in the early-2000s, when we scored some new UK visa arrangements and started migrating en masse. I remember hearing about London squat parties, how the drugs were cheaper than beers, and how Orlando Bloom was really down to earth. I remember thinking maybe I could go there and get an internship for a production company. By 2010, I was finishing uni and I had a dream. A Big Dream to become a screenwriter for a soap opera. Yeah, I don't know why either. But that was the dream and London was soap opera ground zero, so I made the move in 2011.
The first thing I noticed was the fences. London loves fences. They straddle sidewalks and roundabouts. They ring sports grounds and encase train lines. There's no ambiguity in London about where you're allowed to walk and where you'll be charged as a terrorist. Even parks—fucking gardens—are surrounded by these Edgar Allan Poe wrought iron things, as though there's something worth stealing in a park. London just carries two millennia of fear about what people might do in parks if they're allowed to come and go as they please. People might sleep in the bushes. Or be gay.
At first I didn't get it. What's with the fences? But slowly I came to see that they're a physical embodiment of something dark in London's overall character. That beneath all those fun pints and Jamie Oliver kitchen utensils runs a kind of force. It's an ancient class system that bleeds through London's private gardens and nightclub lines, making life a pain in the ass if you're young and don't have any money.
In this way London feels like a place run by people who don't like people. Everything is idiot-proof, floodlit, locked up, and covered in CCTV. It's pretty common knowledge that the UK has accrued some 5.9 million surveillance cameras, which is one for every 11 people. I remember discovering how many of these things are in London, one day when I needed to piss.
Needing to piss is a great way to learn about a city. Good cities have lots of toilets. Even medium-quality cities have nice restaurant owners or secluded alleyways. But bad cities have none of these things. Bad cities have few public toilets, no places to be alone, millions of CCTV cameras in every place that feels alone, and restaurant owners who insist that toilets are reserved for customers who have bought a £8 cup of tea. I'm not even joking. I bought the £8 cup of tea.
Let's talk about money.
When I got to London I landed a waiter job in a fancy restaurant at a fancy hotel. At first I was thrilled because they supplied nice shirts. The charm rubbed off quickly. I was on about £6 an hour, which is enough to stay alive, but not really to enjoy life. You get into a panic every time you buy groceries, or pay rent, or see some asshole coming back to the table with a grin and a round of beers, and you count the beers and you're like... FIVE beers, that's £20. I'm fucked, I can't afford a round! Or maybe I can afford a round? But it'll be boiled eggs until April. Is that worth it? I don't have any friends, maybe I can do eggs... again. Oh fuck, I'm doing it. I'm drinking the beer. I'm doing the eggs.
London is aggressively, weirdly expensive. Costs in London have zero bearing on what people earn. If you're at the bottom of the pyramid, you're currently getting £7.20 an hour. That's better than what I was getting in 2011, but still not enough to comfortably leave the house. Out there in London you haemorrhage money by simply existing. I walked around with this almost Terminator-esque tally of expenditures in the corner of my vision, the numbers clicking over with every necessary, banal thing I bought. You catch the tube: £17.50. You get yourself a pint: £3.92. You go to a public toilet £0.50. An hour of doing nothing much has gone past and it's cost you three hours of work. Finally you give up and go home to watch porn because you can't afford Netflix.
On the theme of porn, it's hard to make friends in London. It's a city of migrants, both domestic and international. Everyone is so used to people coming and going, they are reluctant to connect. Also I'm Australian, which in London signals: I'm here to do coke for six months and then fuck off home. Don't share yourself with me, there's no point. I'm just here for coke.
I was once getting along with this guy at a party and decided I wanted to be friends. My next thought was, How am I going to do that? There was no reason for us to be friends. He already had friends, and I didn't want to blow him, so for him there was just this awkward, bewildering lack of motivation. Like, why? Finally I asked if he'd come to the Tate Modern with me. He laughed nervously and said, "No, but thanks."
Socially, financially, and emotionally things in London were bad, but that was nothing compared to the total nothingness that was my career. This was my fault, of course, but London is a bad place to discover that your dreams are stupid.
I grew up with this wacky sort of Catch Me If You Can ideas about how people get jobs. I thought if you walked into a production company, all full of ego and bluster, people would be so intrigued that they'd give you a chance. So I did that and wrote a lot of insane letters to script producers, but every one of my fledgling efforts were ignored. I now realise the problem was that I didn't say, "Hello I'm looking for an internship," but instead went around asking, "Do you have anything that needs doing?" To anyone busy, that sounded like, "Can you think of something useful that a useless person can do and then manage their time, while you're trying to manage your own?"
I ended up making some short films with a guy I met on Gumtree, but I never got anywhere near a writer's room. It was a very typical period of young person's cognitive development and, frankly, it was beneficial. Failing taught me that feeling special isn't the same thing as being good, and that getting stoned isn't the same thing as practicing. Again, all totally necessary lessons, but it's best to not learn them in a city completely devoid of sun.
Finally, 18 months after I arrived in London, I went home. I'd gone to a few squat parties, tried ketamine twice, and seen Pete Doherty in a shop exactly once. These things were all fine, but they don't explain why people say London in the same sentence as New York, Paris, Tokyo.
So feel free to defend a city filled entirely with chain stores and brown drizzle. But you know what? Maybe you're better than London as well.