Putting myself in their wellies took some cognitive dissonance, but I’m sure I thought about it more than any of my schoolmates, many of whom only left the city once a year in order to go on holiday abroad. For us, the capital city was a vast, unending steppe, and what lives existed out there, beyond the M25, seemed hopelessly small and constricted.
Cities have been portrayed as hothouses of ill since Mesopotamia and London’s obituary rewritten many times over. – Alexis Self
Time passed and my views began to shift. I realised there were places other than London where one might reasonably live. Places such as New York, and maybe Paris. Like my hometown, these cities contained enough manmade delights — shops, pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas, ice-rinks, arcades, zoos, sports stadia — to keep boredom from the door. Boredom, at that age, was life’s greatest existential threat.
Four months into lockdown, I’m beginning to wonder whether my younger self might have been right. It was long before coronavirus that living in London stopped looking like the only option — or even, possibly, the best one. Although all my rural interlocutors eventually grew up and moved to the capital, but this was more out of necessity than choice.
London being the nucleus of the UK economy is nothing new. But the scale of its centripetal dominance has become astounding—the city contributes one-third of national GDP and accounts for a staggering 40% of the country’s creative jobs. In the past, I might have used these figures to bolster my argument, but now I see they’re part of a devastating problem.
In the same way it causes once-beatified parents to lose their sheen, age softens our emotional perception of place. Even so, London has changed a lot since the 1990s, becoming more aerated than a million frothy coffees made by a thousand baristas on zero-hour contracts.
In recent years, more and more Londoners have been relocating, mostly to other UK cities. Last year, this number was over 340,000 – the highest since records began – many of them working-age millennials put off by rising house prices and falling living standards. While it’s too early to tell what effect coronavirus will have on outward migration, figures released last month by estate agents Hamptons show a doubling of interest year-on-year in those looking to leave the capital for greener pastures.
This announcement comes amid rising tension between rural and city dwellers. In parts of the country, frustrated natives have been engaged in a simmering war of words with urban newcomers for years. Priced out of their homes in towns like St. Ives, they have sought democratic recourse—passing a local law in 2016 which prohibits new-builds to be sold as holiday lets or second homes.
For these people, coronavirus probably seems like another punishment wrought by Tyche (Greek god of cities) on fragile rural communities. Alongside four-letter signs on the A30, there have been reports of locals snitching on those fleeing the city during lockdown and, in some extreme cases, taking justice into their own hands. These tangible acts of rebellion reflect a widening cultural divide.
Perhaps it is inevitable that economic suzerainty begets resentment, but the political gulf that now exists between town and country is still surprising. It appeared to reach its climax in 2016, when big cities plumped overwhelmingly for remain and rural areas for leave. But in last year’s general election, the deficit became even greater: urban constituencies now red islands in a sea of blue.
Coronavirus probably seems like another punishment wrought by Tyche (Greek goddess of cities) on fragile rural communities. – Alexis Self
For years, the countryside and regions have believed, often justifiably, that they were losing out. Now it must feel like they could be turning the tide. When the whole nation’s been quarantined, and all manmade delights shuttered up, living in the country becomes a great stroke of cosmic luck. Immured in west London, I craved open fields and rolling hills, and, for the first time, began to seriously interrogate my urban life.
It appears I wasn’t alone. Remote working has been possible for years but was not usually considered a viable option for those intent on career progression. As is often the case, it has taken a major crisis for people to reassess their priorities. Most will deduce that a move still stymies advancement but might just conclude that this isn’t the disaster they once thought—especially with so many modern jobs failing to bring meaning.
Of course, one should never pray for a deadly pandemic to heal deep societal divisions. But perhaps coronavirus was the external threat needed to force a national rebalance. Even my biased teenage self would admit that London’s overwhelming hegemony was no good thing, sowing as it did huge inequality. Prices of regional houses have been stagnating for years, and most people leaving London are of working age looking to lay down roots and revitalise local economies.
Cities have been portrayed as hothouses of ill since Mesopotamia and London’s obituary rewritten many times over. Normal city life will return, and the capital’s star will rise again. But if the UK’s rural communities become desirable places for young people to live, national life will flourish.
Alexis Self is a writer based in London, currently reconsidering things.
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