London…Come to the Red Table

Has this girl outgrown London…?

August 2019 “PB, yes?” The cab driver asked, fixing his mirror to see me properly in the fading summer evening. “That’s the one, thanks. How are you?” I responded vaguely, the exuberance of my roof top soiree fading slowly as I sunk into the inviting leather and wound the window down to usher in a warm breeze. “Going to South London, thank you.” The driver fastened his eyes to the road, and we set off, twisting down the narrow city roads through the still unfamiliar surroundings of the city I grew up in. Chimes of carefree laughter from the city floated over the car as we rolled through the streets paved with opportunity that embraced me in these last few years. I looked out the window toward the dull gleam of the retiring sun, set against the hodgepodge of century old buildings, towering glass structures and cobbled back alleys.

My vessel of comfort turned gracefully around another corner navigating the maze of roadworks, buses, cabs and pedestrians jostling for position on the blur of grey concrete. Double yellow lines traced a path through my vision before being broken by the maiden of sleep whispering in my ear; she took my hand and pulled me into her overdue midst, down the familiar path of my wildest dreams trapped amongst my deepest fears all played out against the music pulsing through my head, the melodic drawl of drill being drowned out by a distant horn and a sudden stop. I jerked forward in my seat as the driver pushed down the horn, fending off a man trying to wipe down his windscreen. We had approached the main junction at the bridge where the usual congregation of a few homeless souls chanced wiping down windows. As the driver abruptly whisked us away from the fading calls of the for spare change, I watched the city lights decorate the backdrop of London’s setting sky, boats floating slowly over the Thames and cyclists peddling over the soft camber of the bridge back to South London.

As we crossed the bridge, I sat up in my seat and took in the change in scenery. Immediately I noticed the dimming lights and dark patches that slowly engulfed the street corners. The hoods emerging from chicken shops with a boisterous energy ready for an evening that was just getting started. Music blasted out of stationary BMWs and cagey stares locked onto my car as we trundled deeper into Southern territory. More familiar feelings of paranoia and street smarts set in as my limbs and nerves stiffened. A deafening siren rang out as an ambulance tore through traffic a few streets away from home. We turned off the main road toward the estate. As the driver pulled up, I thanked him absent-mindedly before getting out. I looked over my shoulder towards some of the older guys loitering on the block and nodded as they nodded back towards me. Taking my tired legs up the stairs to the estate, a fox darted out of the bins towards a bush and the dogs at number 47 barked as usual as I entered the hallway. A few drunks at the end of the hallway shouted something but I ignored them as I looked over my shoulder, pushed my key in the door and stepped over the threshold, closing the door and thanking God for another day in the city.

TodayI love London. I love the family I made on the council estate that raised us. I love the opportunity it gave me to transcend my circumstances and achieve beyond what I could have imagined. I love the personas of the different borough’s and the variety in cultural experiences you get here. Since I started working, I’ve grown to enjoy low lit dinners in restaurants whose names I can’t pronounce, going for long drives through the city in the small hours of the morning and seeing people from my community flourish and progress in so many aspects of life. However, my patience with London is starting to wear thin. Before, where I’d defend my city to the death, I now let people get a jab or two in before I step in. Where I’d tell people there was no better city in the land to live in, I listen now when they describe their lives outside the capital. Despite being my first love, my relationship with London is starting to sour somewhat. So this is going to be my therapy session figuring out if we can still stay together or whether it’s time to go on a break.

First of all, London is expensive and yes I know that goes without saying. However, it’s not just how expensive it is, it’s the sheer volume of things you have to pay for in the city and how it adds up. The city has become so expensive that people often turn to second jobs or side hustles to supplement their main income, which seems to perpetuate an overall feeling that work never stops in London; either you keep up or get shut out. An average day going into work can cost 5 or so quid for breakfast, and another 5-10 quid for lunch, and that’s before you’ve gotten to doing anything in the evening. Travel may cost you in the region of £200-300 a month depending where you’re coming in from and we still haven’t even paid rent yet which for a room can be assumed to be in the region of £600-1000. That’s minimum £2k you’re spending for the privilege just to eat and breathe in London without having to sell drugs or busk on a street corner, and this is before we’ve gotten to the dreaded K word… London, the city I love, is a legitimate barrier for me having kids because of how expensive it is. I’m not saying I can’t have children or even that they won’t have a decent life. But at what cost? Is it selfish to say I don’t want to suffer when I have kids? Or be exhausted 24/7? Yes, there’s beauty in the sacrifice you make for the next generation and your children, but at what cost? Earning good money but watching my kids grow from the distance of my corner office on a trading floor is not the life I’d want.

Secondly, and this will seem somewhat controversial, but London is bad vibes. Now I can’t necessarily quantify this, but the atmosphere can be likened generally to the comment section of an Instagram post. A lot of ego, typically cyclical with the occasional splattering of good energy. The poor vibe in London is largely a consequence of how expensive it’s become. Here’s the thinking… Because you have to hyper-perform to have a high standard of living in the capital, you become obsessed with doing more and achieving more. This means you’re cash poor and now time poor. Having periods where you’re not doing anything can be overwhelmingly disappointing because you feel you should be doing something productive. Everyone around you is on their next promotion or third successful business venture and you’re struggling as you attempt to launch your hundredth business idea. The crabs in a bucket feeling intensifies as many people feel resentment towards someone they know who has done very well in their career or lives. “How did they find the time?” “That could’ve been me.” “They just got lucky.” All of this is amplified in London. It’s a city that embodies a fierce competitive spirit and the detriment is that you often need to have sharp elbows and a selfish streak to do very well. This is what makes it bad vibes. No one is truly happy to see you do well because it feels like they do well at your detriment. It’s one less opportunity for you and one rung lower on the social hierarchy you’ve lost. I think of London as a modern-day social trench, a place where your hustler, survival and fight or flight instincts are all heightened, a combination which in long stretches becomes exhausting. I took advantage of recent foreign travel bans to visit a lot more of the UK and it’s fascinating to contrast the living experience. Outside of London, the pace is much slower, the people far friendlier, the priorities very different and as I get older, I find myself gravitating towards that more and more.

Now that I’ve gotten the negative out of the way, I’ll focus on why I love the city. Now at it’s best, London is one of the best places you can spend a day. Firstly, the levels of success you can reach here are incredible. I’m a black guy from immigrant parents from a council block and shit schools. There’s no other place in the country or even on the continent where I could have reached the levels of success that I have in London – there’s no discounting that. It’s not just proximity to business and opportunity though. As I’ve mentioned, the spirit and gusto with which you operate having grown up in London sets you in good stead for the harsh realities of life. You don’t generally get taken for a mug or have some dewy-eyed perspective on things if you have to graft for everything, and in London, that is mostly the case. Secondly, London at it’s prime (which is normally in good weather) is amazing. It’s not something I can quite put my finger on but the feeling you get during a London summer is filled with so much fun and positivity, it almost makes you forget how awful the winters get. Drinking KA fruit punches after playing football in the beating sun, big BBQs out in the local parks, getting a fresh trim and washing the car; it sounds simple but summers in London are amongst some of the best times I’ve ever experienced. It just wouldn’t feel the same if I were out in some sleepy town on the commuter belt debating the hosepipe ban with neighbours who don’t want me there in the first place.

So the compromise I’ve come to in the time it took me to write this (months by the way) is as follows. Start to enjoy more of the simpler things in life. I’ve taken the turn in good weather to buy a bike and enjoy the city from a different perspective. So far I’m blown away. I’m a simple man most of the time, but experiencing London’s hidden corners, canals and tucked away cafés, visiting the different parks and taking a swig of water after a long bike ride have made me appreciate London from an entirely different perspective. I’ve started to see outside the narrow lens of the two worlds I’ve occupied so far in life of the block and the boardroom. It’s helped me build entirely new lines of tolerance and enjoyment from being in London. It has also helped me fill my time with experiences that are cheap but physically and really spiritually stimulating. What I’ve also tried to do is designate days where I do nothing. I’m not so great at this yet, as I feel periods of nothing can still be filled by something productive, be it physical activity, working on some business idea, or reading something worthwhile. But I’ve been made to realise by important people in my life that scheduling time to do nothing is as important as days filled with productivity, and necessary in breaking the constant mental activity of working on something. Resting the mind is recharging the mind. Finally, post covid I’ve decided that at least every 2-3 months, I will leave London for at least a long weekend. Number one, it mentally breaks up the time I’m spending on work in the city into more digestible periods. It’s far easier working on something when you know you have a break outside of the city in a few weeks’ time. Number two, it allows you to escape the craziness of London and appreciate both escaping the bubble for a while and the life you have that can facilitate nice trips in the first place. I’m hopeful that these small changes can work in at least extending my time in London before I decide what I want to do with my life.

The Poor Banker