The affair is over: goodbye London, city of smoke and mirrors

Oscar To


City of London

The sky looks this blue thanks to the huge amount of pollution flooding the air.

For the past three years, London has been my home. This quiet student bubble produced by the virtue of the university education system has come to an inevitable end and the thoroughfare of graduation will bring it the long awaited pop. My job has been decided with the SJT stating that a person of my stature warrants a post in the fabled city of Glasgow, so called industrial slum of the United Kingdom. For many an experienced Londoner, this would probably extol loud cries of horror with the inevitable exclamation of why would someone ever choose to go there? Why leave the world’s global city, London? And therein lies the problem.

London has evolved a reputation of its own as the city of the world. There’s so much to do there and there is no experience quite like it; this is certainly true, but the London utopia is nothing more than an illusion.

As I took my first steps in Glasgow for the first time just over a month ago, having gratuitously been offered the opportunity by the medical school to do a compulsory placement at the hospital I was due to work, I felt awestruck. I was reminded of the feelings I had felt when I first walked into Whitechapel to have my interview with Barts. The contrast was immediate and obvious.

I had spent my first three years of medical school in the Cambridge ivory tower, becoming accustomed to the historic town as the basis of my day to day life. Bizarre traditions of wearing a gown to go for dinner was not a magical scene in Hogwarts but just a mundane nuisance in order to be fed.

London was a far-away city that was meant to be the capital of the world. It was a busy place full of opportunity in contrast to the serene dullness of Cambridge, frozen eternally in the bubble of academia. Here was a city that breathed life and excitement, eternally evolving and at the forefront of what modern life was meant to be.

As I stepped out of the station, it was immediately obvious that this place was beautiful. The Victorian architecture so reminiscent of Britain’s golden days as the heart of a vast empire covering a quarter of the world was visible at every angle. The weather was, as to be expected, slightly cloudy and dribbling. A dull wind lapped against me and yet, I could not help but feel a smile form on my face. I could only feel content that Glasgow was a beautiful city.

My arrival in Whitechapel on the other hand left me with a slow thought of why had I chosen this place? The sky could not have been greyer as the splutter of rain thudded bluntly against the ground. The dullness struck only melancholic as it merged into the sad visages of the tearful urban decay of the London East End.

Some might say that it is unfair to allow the East End to represent the whole of London but for some, it is their entire life, and also a life that they do not want to leave. To cherry pick the nice parts of London is to ignore the very existence of the areas that are not well off and claim it is a problem that is only theirs to solve.

But the ‘nice parts’ are just a hall of mirrors. London is a modern city full of glass skyscrapers as the hard work inside remains to be seen by all, how industrious the people of London must be. The fetish of glass buildings made to resemble everyday objects; the gherkin, the walkie-talkie, the cheese-grater. To make the ordinary household an unreachable pinnacle is a trademark of this great city.

London remains a city of culture with rich museums that chart the culture of the world. And yet, this reflects the nature of the city itself. The history of the world is here stolen, and encased in glass as a spectacle of another world. This is globalisation, the tyrant force that guts out a city and places a spectacle at its core. This is London, a far-away world clothed in the splendour of its own image as the slums of London remain in their sardine cans unglimmering and forgotten.

No city is free of poverty but when the solution is simply to erect homeless spikes and ensure that the rich and poor have separate entrances to buildings, there is clearly a problem that is being brushed under rather than solved. With student loans being insufficient to even allow rental of home in London, the city is becoming ever more a city purely for those that can either afford it, or have no other choice.

The ongoing gentrification or ‘hipster problem’ only exacerbates things further as communities are cast out by rich people showing up in a derelict part of London, calling it cool, and proceeding to cause the value of the area skyrocket to the point where people either move or are left homeless. The fact that ongoing campaigns to prevent land developers buying property whilst evicting while communities shows the feral forces of the market at work as people’s lives are deemed less important than the land they live on.

You might call this a rant where if I am unhappy with the city I live in, I should move. And I am. But the reality is that a lot of people see leaving London as the end of their world. And a majority of these people will never have left London in their lives. It is bewitching spell that makes London somehow special in spite of it all that is the real danger. That substandard living conditions, extortionate prices and where one of the charms of the city is that you can be completely ignored by everything is all fine. It’s all worth it in the end, because it’s London.

No city is perfect, but most other cities do not have the arrogance to proclaim themselves the global city. And if the face of globe is one of huge inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, it is at least somewhat correct in its depiction. But it shouldn’t be. Problems need to be solved, not ignored.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.