Tired of London, Enamoured of Life. By Angela Caldin
“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.” Samuel Johnson
Dr Johnson’s words, so often quoted, darted into my mind when I had my recent Damascene moment. This came as I turned down a road high above the city of Auckland where a splendid view unfurled before me in the sunshine, sweeping down to the Skytower and the sparkling waters of the Waitemata Harbour. My heart leapt, for I was far from tired of life, I loved life more than I had ever done, but I was utterly tired of London and I didn’t want to return and live there anymore. So, I’m sorry, Dr Johnson, I have to disagree with you, there are other places than London to enjoy all that life can afford.
It’s possible that I never really wanted to live there at all. I remember more than 40 years ago standing on the King’s Road in Chelsea, waiting for the Number 11 bus into the centre, hating the traffic and the press of people. I still hate them. Walking down Oxford Street on any day of the week, you’re surrounded by hordes of people; most give you no quarter and don’t care if they get in your way. But you can saunter up Queen Street in Auckland in comfort, with no fear of being pushed or jostled.
‘Oh, but the culture in London is second to none’ – that’s often the refrain of London aficionados. Yes, there are museums, art galleries, theatres and cinemas too numerous to mention, but it’s often hard to get to them without being bogged down in traffic jams, road works or problems on the underground. And the prices for decent seats at the theatre are astronomical, while so many shows are aimed at tourists and are not intellectual. I’d rather have fewer shows and more real choice and be able to get to the theatre without it being a major trek.
London has a diverse range of peoples and cultures, and more than 300 languages are spoken. In July 2010, Greater London had an official population of 7,825,200, accounting for 12.5% of the UK population. Nearly 8 million in one city is just too great a number of people to contemplate, exerting too much pressure on all the services: health, education, housing, transport, social services, the legal system and leisure. The infrastructure is stretched so taut it just cannot cope and must soon snap with the pressure of too many people demanding too much from too few resources. In my view, it’s just not manageable.
Auckland’s population has recently reached 1.5 million which represents a third of the country’s total population of 4.5 million. It’s a vibrant city, but the main thing is that it’s manageable; you can get to places without too much stress, buildings aren’t too close together so there’s room to breathe, there are numerous opportunities to do interesting things and people take a genuine interest in what you are doing.
Manageable is the term of choice for this time of my life: to be able to drive for 10 minutes and be at a beach; to drive for half an hour and be at a beautiful winery where you can enjoy a leisurely meal in peaceful surroundings; to have access to theatres where you don’t have to book up months in advance to get decent seats.
Dr Johnson is too often quoted with his blanket admiration for London. Let’s try Jane Austen in Emma and listen instead to Emma’s father, Mr Wodehouse, who says, ‘Ah! My poor dear child, the truth is, that in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.’ Then, for good measure, we could heed Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister and novelist, who proclaimed, ‘London is a modern Babylon.’