Stockholm Syndrome: Learning to Love London
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” as Samuel Johnson famously once remarked. The underlying implication of this quote is that if one is not truly and utterly beguiled by Britain’s capital city, then they are surely suffering from some form of depressive condition. However as is true of many quotations, the crucial qualifying suffix is often abridged. For example take Marx on religion:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Taken at face value this quote can be interpreted as a warm concession from Marx that religion does have a valuable place in the world. However, if we continue to read the subsequent lines a very different sentiment arises:
“Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”
As you can see in this fuller rendition of Marx’s quote, the actual sentiment is one of disdain for the false idol of religion. When we consider Dr Johnson’s aphorism in it’s unabridged form, we can also appreciate an important nuance;
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for in London there is all that life can afford”.
Fully rendered, the quote makes the point that it is not simply that enjoyment of London is the de facto criterion for mental well being, but that due to the phantasmagoria of experiences that one can encounter on the gritty, fog infused streets, one will always be able to find something which fulfils their every want and desire. However, the crucial word here is ‘afford’. I do not doubt that London offers all that life can afford, but, only as long as one can afford it. London is like a city built by Ryanair (a low budget airline), where only the most threadbare and utilitarian of basics are given as standard, with everything else provided at a heinous surcharge. And I do not mean only the understandably expensive delights of fine cuisine, theatre and fashion. In modern day London, even the most basic of tastes, which most in the west have come to expect as standand come at hefty premium. Want a 2 bedroom house with a small garden? Let’s start the bidding at 400,000. Exposure to the colour green on a daily basis? Add another 75,000. Wish to relax in the park on a rare sunny day? Best arrive shortly before sunrise and leave shortly after, before the other ‘you’s arrive in their 1000s. Except at least when flying Ryanair, there is sort of working class comradery one feels, as everyone bonds over their shared experience of destitution. This collective blitz spirit against the Ryanair Nazi’s is enough to make the 3 hour flight bearable. London however, is much more akin to flying budget class with a hyrbrid airline consisting of one part Emirates 1st class, 3 parts BA and 6 parts Wizz air. Living in the capital is akin to the experience of repeatedly walking through first class to get to your economy seats. The denizens of first class are both disgusted at your infiltration of their aerial Eden, yet also delighted by the fact that your poverty reinforces their exalted standing in the aerosphere social order. This is contrasted with your existence in the cattle class, where as your legs numb and your back stiffens, through the veil-thin but seemly impenetrable curtain dividing you from first class, you can see that the smiles from the stewards are faked more warmly, the requests take more seriously, and the infallible rules of the aeroplane, enforced more leniently. From my writing so far, you may have gotten the erroneous impression that I hate London. In fact, quite the opposite, I am slowly falling in love with the city. However it is not like the filial love that a child feels for a mother. Rather, it is closer to the love a hostage develops towards their captor. In short I am developing Stockholm Syndrome towards London. Perhaps this is an unconscious survival strategy on my part. If I develop feelings towards my metropolitan captor, possibly it will be moved to treat me with more kindness and respect? If I can convince myself that I’m on it’s side, then I might be able to convince it of that also. Or perhaps, because I know there is no escape from its concrete chains, I have come to sadomasochistically depend on its systematic abuse, as it is the only form of contact I receive?
As I am writing, I look out from my bedroom window for a glimpse of real London. The first thing I see is a deranged pigeon fervently trying to eat a discarded fag*, as if it were his only meal in days. He looks so happy to be tucking into his chargrilled tobacco stuffed burrito, and I envy him. He doesn’t know that birds elsewhere dine on juicy, dew marinated worms unearthed from lush green meadows, the tastiest of which are to be found in the early hours I am informed. In many ways my experience of London is analogous to smoking a cigarette. It looks cool, is an expensive habit, is bad for your lungs, and though you don’t actually feel much pleasure when doing it, you miss it when it’s gone. When you leave London, just as when one doesn’t have a cigarette, you feel an anxiety, an unnerving sensation in your veins that something is missing. And just like smoking, it’s something that you can only get away whilst you have the buoyant, tenacity of youth. I couldn’t live in London when I’m old, only whilst I’m young and have enough wiry grit to make it through the day. And that’s what you need in London, wiry grit, not boundless ambition and a skip in your step, that might work in New York, but here it will be trampled into the grime like a hobo stamping out a fag*, to survive in London you need to be the pigeon, who doesn’t dream of juicy worms, but who feeds on that fag, to survive London you need the wiry grit of a fag eating pigeon. (Nb. fag means cigarette in British slang, London may be tough, but the pigeons aren’t that carnivorous and we don’t stamp out homosexuals, this isn’t Uganda!), London is not so much a city that you live in, but more like a city that you live with. Like Rocky fighting Apollo Creed for the first time, you don’t expect to win, but you are emboldened by getting a few good hits in, and as the blows are exchanged, you develop a profound respect and increasing rivalry towards your rival. Contrary to conventional wisdom, hate is not the opposite of love, boredom is, and London is never boring. To be engaged in an intimate dislike of something is still a form of connection, one which can inspire strong feelings of commitment. There is a deep sense of insecurity inherent in much of the rhetoric about London. Citizens of the city unashamedly wax lyrical about the capital in words so amorous and hagiographic, it’s almost as if they are trying to convince themselves of their love for it. Now perhaps this is a necessity of large, multicultural, multi-class cities, where there needs to be a form of universal patriotism in order to foster a collective sense of identity. However, as this video demonstrates, one does not have to be unrelentingly quixotic about a city to express a commitment to it: There is, I will admit a certain frisson to be redeemed from the harsh, gritty reality of everyday London life. The screech of sirens, tearing through the dense fog of car engines, train wheels, 1000 different languages, stiletto heels, the static electricity of raw humanity igniting the engine of the city. Your veins start to pulsate with the orgasmic sensation that you are part of something much bigger than yourself, part of a vibrant human firework display. Though as with all drugs, this high only lasts for a fleeting, elated moment and as the crest of the wave breaks at it’s inevitable climax, you are left stranded on the barren shore of reality. It is at this point that the drug of London, like all drugs, enacts it’s primary and most toxic effect, providing you with the sober realisation that your actual life pales in comparison to the illusion it fed you last night. Your only recourse at this point is to either retake the drug, resulting in a perpetual cycle of stratospheric highs and crushing lows, or to reject the transient anaesthetic that it provides you with and to actually embrace life in a fulfilling and real way. “He who is tired of London, is tired of life.” I’m am wide awake for life, which is why I am growing evermore tired of London.