‘Nobody wants to admit it, but London was boring even before the pandemic — and it’s still boring now!’ I said. We were at a London drinks party. The guy retaliated with a smirk and that old Dr Johnson line, ‘He who is tired of London, is tired of life.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not tired of life — I’m tired of people who always quote Dr Johnson when you make some slightly disparaging remark about London!’
I dislike that Dr Johnson quote because it assumes that you can’t be genuinely tired of London; your discontent must be due to your own boring, miserable life and not because London has become an overpriced, culturally exhausted and soulless city — which it has. And I disliked that guy because he’s one of those metropolitan provincials — a class of smug, ‘creative’ London types who think their city is the greatest in the world because it has ‘so many art galleries, museums, music venues and so much multicultural diversity’. That’s such a bourgeois consumerist notion of what makes a city great — and this from people who think they’re so cool and cultured!
But why should I let people like that irritate me? I’m irritated by everyone and everything these days: friends, TV shows I once loved, favorite films, favorite books. (Christ that Holden Caulfield is irritating!) I’m even irritated by Bruce Springsteen. That little love-in podcast he does with Obama is just too irritating for words.
Is this some sort of pandemic-inspired fractiousness that everyone is going through right now — or is it just me growing older and grumpier by the day? I used to mock old boomers who were constantly moaning about modern urban life and manners. Generation Grump, I called them. And now I’m one of them. People think you’re funny and kind of cute if you’re Larry David and you do it. But if you’re a Mr Shmo-Mo Nobody like me, you’re just a boring grump. Yes, I know I’m being grumpy about other grumps.
Be warned: once you go grump, you can’t go back. There’s always something to provoke you; usually other people. My current bête noire is white middle-class people who stand in long queues outside of ‘artisan’ bakeries to get a take-out coffee. Why would anyone queue between 15 and 25 minutes to get a cup of expensive mediocre coffee? Why can’t white people walk down a street without clutching a cup of coffee? What is wrong with these people that they need to suckle a Styrofoam cup like were a baby pacifier?
Everyone is waiting for London life to get back to normal — but not me. I want it to go back to the first lockdown in 2020. The city was deserted and so quiet like some spooky sci-fi film where everyone has disappeared. You could walk down the center of once busy streets and not see a soul. London was in a coma and I didn’t moan about anything back then.
I know that London has to get back to business but I wonder if London — or any of the great cities — will ever be the same again? Remember when people used to talk about a city embodying the zeitgeist? There’s always been a city that was the place to be: Paris in the Twenties. Rome in the Fifties. London in the Sixties. New York in the Eighties. Nobody uses the word zeitgeist anymore. We talk about ‘trending’ and ‘going viral’. Cyberspace has pushed out city space from the center of our fixations.
You know what London needs? Some hip Americans. We used to have loads of them back in the early Sixties and Seventies and they helped London swing. People like Stanley Kubrick, Jimi Hendrix and William Burroughs. American writers, actors and comics loved coming to London and used to meet for Sunday afternoon baseball games in Hyde Park. My dad took me to one where Phil Silvers (yes, Sgt. Bilko himself) was umpiring a game. Now we just have rich Americans.
Oh well. I guess cities, like people, have their time. Some strange alchemy of money, music, youth, fashion and new ideas provides a new and exhilarating rhythm to the life of a city — and then it dies. Better to be an honest grump than maintain the fake gaiety of those who never tire of London life.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2021 World edition.