The problem with leaving London

    30 October 2020

    In preparation for a recent holiday in Sicily – cut short in the event by the latest incoherent, floundering measures taken in the name of safety and precaution by this abject mess of a government – I finally got around to reading Homer.

    As it happened, nothing in the Iliad seemed to have very much to say about the modern Med.  The hidden hand in evidence as I scanned the general torpor and unfinished civil engineering projects in Syracuse seemed to be less that of Zeus or Athena than Cosa Nostra, or maybe just too much pasta. Though the port did seem to be under some sort of siege, by a vast Norwegian cruise liner that towered over the actual buildings without even the decency to try and look like a horse.

    But one passage in that second book certainly resonated with me. That in which Odysseus, held captive by a sexy witch, spends years in exile, sitting on the beach and wishing he could see even a wisp of smoke, rising from his lost and deeply mourned home of Ithaca. It reminded me inescapably of the exile I have endured these last thirteen years, having abandoned London, for Hove.

    This smouldering, inextinguishable fire in me, like those which burn continuously underground in abandoned mines in Oregon, has been re-fanned lately by the news that many more people are now thinking of abandoning the Smoke for the Seaside. The virus and subsequent home-working strategies have convinced them that living in big cities is a very twentieth century solution to the problem of earning a living. That living in proximity to one’s office made sense only when one had to actually go there every day. That the virtues of the virtual now overwhelm the appeal of the real.

    I would of course always welcome newcomers, new escapees, emigres, with what I hope would be easy hospitality. And I would certainly welcome the effect that increased demand is likely to have on the value of my house. But I would urge them to proceed with caution. It might be a trap.

    It is very hard to fully anticipate what you lose, when you leave London. You make calculations about commutes, and access to recreational facilities, and population densities and pollution and “quality of life” – and very probably one or two other factors that you are much too polite and liberal to put into words. But you fail to account for the fact that despite currently living in the Greatest City in the World – and really, it’s not even close –you are willingly choosing to leave and to live somewhere rather more narrow.

    Oh, we can still go there, you tell yourself. An hour into Victoria, and Theatreland is right there, or will be, if it ever opens again. Heavens, it takes us an hour to get to Oxford Circus on the tube! M&S sandwiches and a single portion of Sauvignon Blanc on the journey home – in a real glass, with a peel-off lid! – and the journey home will fly by. It’ll be like taking a picnic to Lords – what fun!

    But it isn’t fun. It’s tiresome. You may have your mini scotch eggs and your Cocktail in a Can but even before the Plague Train of Death vibe generated by compulsory mask protocols came in, someone will have chosen the considerably more malodorous option of a Burger King Misery Meal and then left the half consumed remains – a feast for dogs and crows  – on the seat opposite. Setting it down in its greasy brown sack, when they get off at East Croydon, quite possibly while holding eye contact, just to remind you of your impotence in the face of such behaviour. And after a while, you just stop going, and instead limit yourself to whatever Ayckbourn revival is currently visiting the local Theatre. And then, you stop leaving the house altogether, and watch award winning productions from the eighties, on You Tube.

    And when you do go to London, perhaps for a pathetically strung together sequence of “meetings” that you hope will convince you that you still have some traction on the world, you realise, that you are now that most pitiable thing, a visitor. You are no longer part of the organism, the host. You may not be a parasite but you are contingent, dependent on hospitality. And you can never be sure again, whether you have come to a land of civilised values, or one of monsters, cannibals and deceit.

    This as some of you may have gathered, or remembered, is the theme of the Odyssey – the degree to which your hero finds himself exposed to the subtle varieties of Xenos – our relationship to a place, and to those who live there. And it works as much as anything as a warning against the risk involved, in leaning too heavily on The Graces of Others.

    London feels Other to me now. Like a deep-water fish that has somehow surfaced and cannot possibly re-plumb the depths without being squashed flat like a turbot, I am a spectator, and not, for once in a good way.

    So, escape by all means, put it all behind you, but don’t underestimate the uneasy sense that you have fast forwarded to the end game, and are not quite ready to make the final resignation.