Rory Sutherland argued in The Spectator recently that no one who leaves London ever moves back. ‘It is only when you leave London,’ he wrote, ‘that you realise what a monumental pain in the arse it is to live there’. I agree – but for the opposite reason to the one you might imagine. I choose not to live in London not because I hate it, but because I love it.
Indeed I still love the city as much as I do precisely because I don’t live there. Rory’s bang on – living in London is a pain in the arse. But visiting London, as I do all the time from my village in Suffolk, is great fun. I couldn’t exist without it.
There are many things that are much better done out of London. Buying a home is the obvious one. Unless you (a) inherit huge wads of cash or (b) find a way of travelling back in time to 1983, you can forget buying property in the capital.
Bringing up children is another. Kids in London never seem to smile. There’s a hardness to them, a self-constructed shell that’s perfectly understandable, because it’s so necessary. And it’s all the kids have ever known, so it doesn’t bother them. But that doesn’t stop it bothering me.
Then there’s driving. I love driving in the country, tootling round the lanes with nothing more to worry about than a few thorns on an overhanging blackberry bush. But London is a nightmare. No one will let you in. White van drivers treat your wing mirrors as targets. Drive the wrong type of car in the wrong lane for half a nano-second and Sadiq Khan declares you bankrupt.
Cycling is similar. It’s a joy in the sticks, but would be hell in London. Note the ‘would be’ – I won’t even try it. Forget lorries bearing down on me, it’s the Lycra Nazis who put me off. They’d sneer at me for not going fast enough, for my panniers taking up too much of the cycle lane.
Living where I do is actually handier for central London than living at the end of some Tube lines. My last train home from Liverpool Street is at ten to one in the morning. I’m lucky in that, being a layabout writer, I only ever come to the smoke to see friends. But even people in my village who have proper jobs prefer the arrangement. Those who work in the Square Mile have a few minutes’ walk to Liverpool Street at one end, a few minutes’ drive from Colchester at the other.
But you know the real reason I could never live in London again? It’s that London isn’t a real place. It’s a magical, buzzing, exciting place. As Dr Watson said in the first Sherlock Holmes story, London is ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’. But that drainage tends to happen in your twenties. London is a fantastic place to live when you’re that age. It dazzles you, teaches you stuff, offers so much more than (to take my example) a small village in the Midlands. Hit your thirties, though, when you’re considering starting a family, and London’s magic isn’t something you want every day. You need somewhere more grounded, somewhere calmer. Somewhere real.
But still that magic draws you in. Living where I do is the best of both worlds. Suffolk is perfect for bringing up my son, for knowing everyone, for saying hello to passers-by. Sometimes, though – once a week, maybe not even that – I need the excitement of London. It’s the contradiction I love: you come to a city of eight million people to get some privacy. London is all about anonymity, about not having to say hello to passers-by. The capital and my village each have their code of behaviour. The codes are polar opposites. Both work perfectly, and both would be disastrous if transposed to the other location.
‘Every time I come up here, I always think something wonderful is going to happen. And it never does.’ So said the author John Pearson, when I interviewed him for my book about London, Walk the Lines. Pearson, biographer of the Kray twins, lives in Sussex, and visits the capital about as often as I do. His comment perfectly sums up my relationship with London. I know that in the end it’ll never be quite as magical as it is in my dreams but, just to keep up its mystique, I’ll never live there again.