Having lived in London pretty much continuously (bar a few months off here and there) for the past two decades, at times it feels like being in a long-term relationship with the city. And like all relationships, it has its ups and downs – to put it mildly.
For sure, I’m not the only one who feels this way. A friend once described her relationship with London as an abusive one. Which sounds extreme, but kind of makes sense.
Just like the British weather can display characteristics of all four seasons within the same day (one has to live here to believe it), the London experience can be sweet and sour almost simultaneously.
A distressing incident of road rage, for instance, can be ensued by the most touching kindness from a complete stranger, and a great night out can come to a close with an overcrowded, overheated and generally unpleasant bus or Tube journey home.
But just when you think you’ve had enough of it all and that you’re finally ready to migrate to a sunnier, smaller, less crowded place, the city somehow manages to seduce you, once again, into staying.
This phenomenon of cajolery tends to take place during the summertime, when the temperatures are mild and the days long.
William Shakespeare was not wrong: there is something truly magical about a midsummer night at this northern latitude!
But the long, dark winter months are a very different story.
This year I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend the best part of the winter in Kerala, practising yoga and enjoying the tropical climate, food and people – all in all, an amazing experience.
Returning to London at the beginning of March, however, was rather traumatic; not only because of the drop in temperature, but also due to the stark cultural contrast between Kerala and London.
While the pace of life in the southern Indian state was very laid back and the people there seemed genuinely content, London felt like capitalism on steroids!
On my way home from the airport, the pale, grim-faced commuters on the Tube were not a happy sight.
At the end of the day, Britain is where the Industrial Revolution took place and over two centuries later, London remains very much an emblem of capitalism – and rather ruthless, at that, the gap between the rich and the poor here being one of the widest in the developed world.
The first time I ever visited London was in the summer of ’89, as a secondary school student on a language study holiday. Five years later, I moved to the Big Smoke and felt as though I’d come home.
London has changed dramatically over the past two decades: culturally, as well as architecturally. In the 90s, for example, there were hardly any cafés or restaurants with outdoor seating outside Soho and it was almost impossible to find decent coffee in town! In this respect, the city has become much more ‘European’.
I believe this process of Europeanisation was kick-started, or at least accelerated, by the advent of the Eurostar service in 1994, connecting London to Paris by train.
A side effect of this cultural transformation, however, is that London has become more and more disconnected from the country in which it is situated and which it is meant to represent. Besides, the ever-expanding economic gap between the South East and the rest of the nation has created a certain degree of resentment towards the capital, especially in the deprived North.
Because I grew up in the South of Italy, which is at the same time reliant on and oppressed by the richer North, I can empathise strongly with the Northern cause in this country.
Like Southern Italy became poorer after Italian Unification in 1861 (prior to which the old Kingdom of Naples had been one of the most industrialised states in Europe), the North of England has been impoverished by the crumble of its industrial economy beginning at the end of WWI.
Several attempts have been made throughout history, in both countries, to narrow down the economic disparities between the regions. But sadly, they’ve all failed miserably. For different and often baffling reasons, the gaps have in fact widened.
Organised crime and endemic corruption certainly haven’t aided the Southern cause in Italy. Whereas in England, Northerners blame London for “sucking the life out of the country”. And they’re not wrong.
Devolution of power would seem like the obvious solution. With their thirst for autonomy, the Scots will probably show the way. Not just to Britain, but to the rest of Europe, too.
In the meantime, though, Londoners shouldn’t be made to feel bad about living in one of the most diverse and exciting cities on Earth. After all, we pay a high price for the entertainment.