When a man is tired of people going on about London

YOU can’t open a national newspaper these days without tripping over an article by someone who is leaving London or another by a writer committed to remaining.

Either version provides further proof of the London-centric ways of our media. Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that other parts of the country had evaporated. As for the writer who made many magazine pages and much mileage out of moving his family to Brighton, well that’s almost an outer borough of London, isn’t it?

The impetus for these exercises in staying or going seems to the changing face of London, houses prices with no ceiling, and Russian oligarchs buying up fine old houses and digging beneath them to create vast subterranean extensions where most ordinary people might think of adding a conservatory.

It is obligatory under the rules of an ancient journalistic code covering the insertion of hallowed clichés for the writer to dig up that quotation by Samuel Johnson. You know the one. “Sir, when a man is tired of London he should hop on the next Virgin train to York.”

Well, the most quoted man of the 18th century didn’t say that. What he said was this: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Perhaps he had a point, but the trouble nowadays is not what London affords but who can afford the place. When we moved to York 27 years ago, there was already a difference in house prices, but not a substantial one. A two-bed flat in south-east London was exchanged for an Edwardian terrace house in York. Nowadays that same flat would buy a much bigger house, but it is hardly worth fretting about disappeared things.

As a Bristol-born, Manchester-raised, London-matured long-term resident of York, I no longer have to worry about London. More of my life has been spent in the north, although never beyond York. Yet I do worry that London will soon become somewhere only the super-wealthy can afford to live, a great city still, but without its bumps and eccentricities, cleansed of the wonderful ordinary people who once flowed through its veins.

Maybe that’s romantic tosh, I’ve been too long gone to have an opinion based on fact. What should worry a citizen of York is that people might follow the example of what Samuel Johnson said in my invented quotation, allowing the London effect to creep up here. Already this city is wage-poor and property rich, with houses costing more than people on ordinary incomes can easily afford.

Years ago the editor of the newspaper where I used to work, an imperious man now no longer with us, became excited by the idea of people commuting to London from York. Reporters were dispatched to the station and a red-eyed traveller or two were and paraded before us as examples of those living the aspirational life. Man On Ledge never did quite understand the aspirational life and suspects most readers of the day were unimpressed, thinking: “Daft buggers going all that way to London when they could stay here.”

As for Johnson, he must have been tiring company what with all those aphorisms and witty sayings, forever spouting forth in the hope of posterity. He got that all right and hasn’t been forgotten. If he’d been around today perhaps he would have written a blog.

In the famous quote, incidentally, Johnson was discussing with Boswell, the Scottish lawyer, biographer and writer, whether Boswell’s affection for London would wear thin if he lived there, as opposed to being an enthusiastic visitor from Scotland. The discussion took place on September 20, 1777 – and to this day journalists, writers and bloggers shamelessly trot it out. Man On Ledge felt it was only fair and proper to continue this tradition.

Leave a Reply