I don't mean this arrogantly, but there is too much culture in London.
It might be an arrogant point of view, granted. Having lived in regional
England (in towns both small and large) and in London, I've experienced
first hand the bitterness many British feel towards Londoners who talk
like the world ends at the M25 orbital motorway. But if you live in London
long enough you will come to concur with this mentality, like it or not.
Despite the sense of losing oneself into this huge monstrous organism,
and the panic that accompanies that sensation, you too will come to love
I've also lived in New Zealand on and off through young adulthood. Other young
people (the offspring of cow cockies, or frustrated homies making do with Christchurch's
Cathedral Square while dreaming of gun-toting on South Central street corners)
would incredulously ask me why I came to New Zealand. Many adolescents felt excruciating
isolation in God's Own corner of the Pacific. I had my reasons for visiting and
felt I learnt masses, an urban Brit giving myself up to the wilds of West Coast
bush. But that didn't stop me from regaling these wide-eyed youngsters (I'm not
making this up) with tales of the Nirvana and Cypress Hill gigs I'd attended.
And that was just in Nottingham, a small city by UK standards.
(You may have seen Shane Meadows' movie TwentyFourSeven. That's Nottingham.
Paradoxically, some of his characters were adolescent males furiously aping US
homie styles too. This is a phenomenon that merits a feature in itself - there's
this global brotherhood of boys, usually white middle-class boys, feeding on
Wu Tang, united in their impotent rebel homogeneity, striving for integration
into some imagined notion of a culture. Hell, they've even got foul-mouth supremo
Eminem as a spokesman now.)
I was very much gloating back then, and trying to wind up these wannabe homies.
Pathetic bit of cruelty, but I liked the idea that just through being in a certain
place I was participating in some vigorous and tangible chunk of culture - I
was part of something.
Perhaps this explains the intoxication of London. A few years ago especially,
when the art frenzy that for convenience's sake talked about the yBas (young
British artists), was in its media-fueled, advertising industry-funded heyday,
this feeling was wonderful. If you were involved in the art scene and based in
London, that is. And the yBa thing is still simmering along, except that that generation
are no longer young (some of them never were), and the new lot haven't been so
hyped. Names like David Shrigley or Paul Noble or David Thorpe or Johnny Spencer
or Tomoko Takahashi probably won't reach the brand status of Damien Hirst or
Tracey Emin. Incidentally, Emin is odds-on fave to win the 99 Turner Prize. So
in such institutions the oyBa (old young British artists) hold sway, for the
while. The boy Shrigley deserves it though, one of these years, for drawing pictures
so crap and filling them with gags so intriguing, or maybe Takahashi for being
so forthright with the detritus of our short-sighted society.
But anyways, art aside, the point is that the world does shrink if you give yourself
up to London. And you become dependent on it. I even felt in need of a fix when
on a trip to NYC recently. After puffing on the Big Smoke everyday for over a
year, the Big Apple just wasn't enough.
Unlike early mariners I'm not haunted by images of sailing off the edge of the
world, skidding down some giant cataract into a bottomless abyss, but certainly
the M25 does exist as some sort of cultural boundary. Call me a snob, I don't
care. I know I'll like as not grow out of it but for now I've found something
to suckle on in London. My own days of white homie, or spliffed up student, or
Swandried South Island hippie farm boy, or frustrated regional professional are
over - the quest for a sense of identity has been fulfilled by London. Or at
least it's provided something that approximates a sense of fulfillment, however
Yes, you will very likely have soulless times if you immerse yourself in the
London experience but conversely you will also have access to the greatest storehouse
of cultural richness in the world. You will sell you soul but after a while you
won't even notice. Everyone who migrates into London sells their souls. The massed
souls float up into the sky, dirty smoke that collects in a huge upturned dish.
Just picture some SFX sequences here - maybe Ghostbusters, maybe ID4 _-
with ripe apocalyptic skies. That's what London's like if you squint into the
sky. Or you will at least benefit from some fantastic sunsets as the light refracts
through all that dirty spiritual matter.
Of course there's a flipside, there always is to the urban experience. The soulless
masses in their most degraded form can be witnessed regularly in the cattle trucks
that make up the London public transport system. My old rush-hour commuter train
would pull up, the doors would open and the thing would already be full to the
gunwales with cursing, disease-ridden people with eyes full of rage, or frustration,
or apathy, or just nothing. Soulless. And in we'd get _- there weren't even any
Nazis to usher us. It was by choice. Moo. Off to the slaughterhouse.
But if you can somehow walk away from the slaughterhouse unscathed (or with only
a little flesh peeled off) as most days, most people miraculously do, you should
be able to find something in London to replace your soul and put something back
into your eyes. Disconcertingly, this idea makes me think of putting a new CD
in a games console, or a cassette in a video player. Well so be it. London has
you. Walk the streets of Soho and see it change from day to night; hang out in
a hip Shoreditch bar and see how fierce the competition is for the most rude
and aloof bar staff award; watch The Winter's Tale performed in Russian
by the Maly Theatre company and be entranced by the rhythms of words you can
only understand through stolen glances at the incongruous subtitles; take Ewan
McGregor or Cate Blanchett or Rachel Weisz out of your cinematic imagination
and see them on stage. In fact, see them in the street. Blur's Damon Albarn is
the celeb I seem to see right left and centre. Oh, and Emin enjoying a drink
or two. Join the school parties and oldies and enjoy the national collections
-_ but keep moving or sit still and just focus on one thing.
I don't know _- go to the Chisenhale gallery or the Delfina or Interim Arts or
Sadie Coles HQ or the Saatchi Gallery. Go to the National Film Theatre and check
out the latest Wells reissue, or that Fellini that slipped through your grasp.
Go to the markets _- discover that among the trustafarians there really are a
lot of black people in Portobello, despite the apartheid of Notting Hill the
movie. Go for a lunchtime lap dance. Eat 20p 4am bagels. Be rude to Swedish tourists
in Leicester Square. Run the gauntlet of Brixton (ha ha). Smash up McDonalds.
Misunderstand. Get lost, frustrated, elated. Ignore your absent soul. Enjoy London.
(Disclaimer. London is full of misery and poverty: frustrated people, homeless
people, drunken people, Antipodeans whingeing about the weather. The opinions
in this piece are solely those of the writer and he hardly believes any of them
himself anyway. The editors and publishers want no part of it.)