Capital Gains: Living & Learning in London

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In January, I wrote a post giving my nephew some of my *ahem* sage advice on his university telephone interview. Whether it helped or not (solid guy that he is, he tells me it did), he got the place and now is about to embark on his course and his new life coming to London as a student, just as I did *ahem* some years ago.

So, in the spirit of continuing my, albeit unsolicited, Agony Uncle advice – and by way of trying to transport myself back in time to the strange days of my youth and my arrival in London with the aim of identifying some of the things I wished I’d known then – I thought I’d put together my big three life lessons from a life living in London.

1.

Realise You Are Entering A Sprawling Cesspit Of Criminality

Sorry to start with such a bleak opener, but it is the most important one to learn.

In the twenty years I’ve lived in London, I’ve been mugged twice, pick-pocketed I think about twice (maybe three times), kerb-crawled, card-cloned, witnessed numerous public fights, been verbally abused on a night bus, had my phone stolen, had a coat stolen, and been blood-soaked witness to a friend being hit across the head (totally unprovoked) with a metal bar (he happily survived and only bears a slight scar now, and remembers nothing about it whatsoever. I, unfortunately, still do).

A lot of that series of unfortunate events happened while I was still a student, and, to be fair, though I’m painting a picture of London as some kind of dystopian hell, had more to do with my own stupidity than anything else. Well, mostly.

It was never a good idea to go and get cigarettes at four in the morning from a petrol station tucked behind the Mile End Road.

Likewise, it wasn’t a good idea to walk alone down the Mile End Road at three in the morning, or five.

I was unlucky to be alone in the park on a summer afternoon in order to be mugged, but I lived in a really rough area then – I could have stuck to the road. I could have got off the night bus and waited for another.

But there was nothing I could do about the psychopath who thought it was fun to crowbar random people at half ten on a Friday night just for the sheer heck of it.

And, for all this, I’ve been a hell of a lot luckier than a lot of people. So, the lesson here: don’t take chances. There is safety in numbers. Cross the road, change carriage, get off the bus. There’s no shame in that. You have a phone on you now (I didn’t) – don’t be a hero, avoid the situation as best you can and call someone whose job it is to intervene. 

Be alert. You’ll develop your London streetwise pretty quickly anyway, but rather not the hard way. You’re not being paranoid if they are out to get you, and, unfortunately, students make easy prey. I did (and I’m 6’3”, and, though I was really skinny then, I still wasn’t the most obvious target physically, but my obliviousness put me straight in the crosshairs).

2.

The Best Bits Of London Are (Mainly) Free

Okay, that’s the worst of it out of the way. You’re prepped and ready to keep ‘em peeled, so now it’s time to explore (and I can promise you, whether you’re here for four years or forty, there’ll always be somewhere new to explore in London).

London is a great place to learn to become a Flâneur (basically, someone who saunters about observing people and places).

It’s a real benefit these days the museums are free, but so are the streets, and they’re littered with history and stories, objects and cultures and people, past and present, from all over the world.

Obscure can be just as rewarding as iconic. And, again, you have the benefit of being able to Google anything you come across.

But even without a guidebook, there’s lots to be said for just soaking in the atmosphere. There are so many different atmospheres to be found in London.

Spring mornings in the sheltered London squares, like Canonbury Square in Islington or Gordon Square in Bloomsbury. Summer nights in hedonistic hotspots like Shoreditch or Soho. Autumn afternoons wandering around the back streets of Hampstead Village or along the villas of St John’s Wood, seeing how the other half live. Winter snow in Highgate Woods, or clinging to the imperial columns holding up the bastions of the City.

If you like the sound of a place on the tube map, go there. There will be something memorable to discover. And always something to discover (and, of course, you can make your budget go even further if you walk, cycle or run there).

Just know, however far you go, you’ll never cover it all – and that’s what makes it all the more exciting.

3.

The City Changes You

Moving away anywhere will, inevitably, change you – just as, in fact, staying put will too. The pace just might be a little different. But, if you’re able to navigate its dark underbelly and find yourself falling in love with London, find yourself branding yourself a Londoner, you’ll very likely have a significantly altered world view to the one you arrived with.

It’s the Brand London thing. That world within a world thing. The “Let’s have a Peruvian tonight,” thing and who cares what languages people are speaking on the bus.

It doesn’t work for everybody, but, for the vast majority of Londoners, it’s the very diversity of London that makes it an inspiring, stimulating, mind-opening place to be. Brexit was clear evidence of that, as well as the dislocation London experiences from the rest of the country and the hostility in which it can be regarded beyond the M25.

Sometimes you get the feeling people think of London in the same way the districts felt about ‘The Capital’ in The Hunger Games. Sometimes when you see the money that is being pumped into London, and the lack of money going elsewhere, you can be inclined to think there’s some merit in this.

Become a Londoner, as anybody can, and you may find in some quarters you don’t travel so well.

You can avoid this, of course, by appreciating, no matter how much London may get under your skin, just the thought of it, for others, can bring them out in a rash. As Londoners, a big lesson from Brexit was that we need to get better at looking over the garden fence and looking out to the rest of the country – not just the rest of the world.

A friend of mine is always teasing me about living in my London bubble. It can be a very seductive place to be, but we’d all be well advised to remember, bubbles can burst (as well as that no one is going to appreciate your shocked exclamation when someone tells you they’ve never eaten Peruvian cuisine or how you can’t understand how anyone could live anywhere where you have to go more than 500 metres for an artisan coffee).

All that said, I hope however long you find yourself in London, it turns on its magic for you. For all the aggravation it often causes me, for all I love the countryside and swapping my grey horizons for green, there’s still no where else I’d rather be – and it’s really at its best when you get to share it with someone new.

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