It was Samuel Johnson who wrote: ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. Yet he wrote those words in 1777, long before he could ever get stuck between stations on the… Northern line, returned to his triple-locked bike to find that someone had stolen the saddle and brakes, or was trying to get home from the O2 after a concert. When I left London ten years ago, I had quiet confidence that Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’s most famous regular was wrong. It wasn’t the life I had had enough of. It was definitely London.
It had all started so well. A decade earlier, I’d taken the sleeper train south from Glasgow to work as a doctor, and soon found a flat to share. Hackney. The pride I’d felt when I became a Londoner was only slightly tempered by the realization that my new housemates had all put forward indisputable reasons why their names couldn’t possibly appear on the lease. Our real estate agent had reassured me that it was great to be the only person on the lease as it meant I could be ‘the boss’. And so I learned my first lesson in London: never trust anyone driving a Mini with the name of the company they work for on it.
My next lesson in London also involved my flat: the large empty white space at the two o’clock position on the TFL card turned out to represent Hackney. I bought a bike and the more experienced Hackney site I bought as van gave me the advice I still use: take the lane if you have to, watch out for the white man, and above all be eternally vigilant for the left turning trucks whose name is dead.
Still occasionally a brush with mortality on the Old street roundabout and the monthly chores of chasing my roommates for their rent were small fees to pay for the glory of life in Hackney. After all, here were pubs with Friday night closings, convenience stores selling vegetables I’d never heard of, and parks the size of some small Scottish towns. There were also young people here from whom I was separated by more than two degrees.
I soon discovered that another advantage of living in London was the number of people who came to visit. Friends, relatives, former colleagues: they all took turns tearing apart the inflatable mattress. As the months and years passed and my knowledge of London piled up, I developed an itinerary for these weekend visitors. Friday night was curry and drinks in Brick Lane, Saturday morning was Broadway Market for coffee, and when my guests wanted to go down Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon—which they inexplicably always did—they were all alone. Sundays were, of course, meant to be hungover wandering the markets of East London. My guests have always had a good time, but I suspect I enjoyed their visits even more. Showing them around made me feel like a real Londoner.
But then it happened suddenly and without warning: my tenth year in the city turned around and I discovered that I was no longer in love with London. At the time, I didn’t think of blaming any of the numerous events in my personal life — a breakup, a job I no longer liked — or even the fact that we’d all recently been exposed to the sight of the other Johnson waved his Union Jacks as he dangled from the air above the Olympic Park. The magic seemed to have vanished and I blamed London. When, six months later, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to move to The Angels and work as a writer, I took it.
As soon as I landed at LAX, I had the same feeling I had when I arrived in London ten years earlier: as if I had been given a present so large it would take me years to unwrap it. Even in those first weeks I already understood that the two places really weren’t that different. The more time I spent in Los Angeles, the more true this seemed, and I often found myself counting the competing attractions of the two cities in my mind.
I thought LA’s roaming street coyotes were a miracle, but I’d seen American friends visiting London look at our urban foxes as if they’d caught a glimpse of a dodo. LA’s ubiquitous taco trucks beat London’s ubiquitous fried chicken places, but Fun will triumph over Subway someday. Malibu probably trumps the South Downs, but Soho beats West Hollywood. In terms of bikes, there are no white men or left-handed trucks in Los Angeles, but this is negated by the fact that even every regular driver is actively trying to kill you. Americans would call this one Washa term that took me years to understand meant “to draw.”
Of course, no American will ever agree that London and Los Angeles are equal, as they generally love London. When I first arrived in LA, football became more and more the favorite sport of hipsters and they all supported Arsenal. “I’m not one of those people who just chose Arsenal because they’re from London and that’s why they’re cool,” American acquaintances would line up to tell me, “I actually had a friend from there in college and he was a big Arsenal fan, so I’ve been following them for years.” Given the incredible number of Arsenal fans who seem to have further education in America, they must have one of the most learned fan bases around.
But it’s not just the football-loving hipsters. The first major Hollywood star I had a working date with didn’t want to talk about the project we were talking about, but about East London’s late-night pubs. Was the dolphin still there? What was that place even like? Allowed? And what, he wanted to know, was the deal with Ye Olde Axe, Hackney Road’s legendary rockabilly bar that turned into a strip club at the stroke of midnight? These questions then spilled over into a broader one: Why the hell would I have left London for Los Angeles? No one had ever asked me that before, and it gave me such a sudden pause that all I could do was mumble about the weather.
As the years passed, I improved my knowledge of Los Angeles—which highway exits to take, which to avoid, where they keep the good margaritas—and was proud of my status as an Angeleno. Once again I have developed an itinerary for my visitors: Griffith Park Observatory, Santa Monica Pier, Malibu’s Point Dume. And again, showing visitors around made me feel like I belonged, although this time as an Angeleno.
But then it happened again. After ten years, I woke up one morning feeling that Los Angeles was no longer the place I once fell in love with. Summers are getting hotter, politics is getting worse and homelessness is just heartbreaking. And yet, since this is now the second time it’s happened to me, deep down I’m finally smart enough to understand that it’s not the city that has changed, not really. It’s me. And with this belated realization: when I left London it wasn’t that I was tired – how could I ever have been?
I know this too, because every time I come back to London now, I get the same feeling of being 25 and getting off the train in the morning at King’s Cross: the same excitement, the same feeling of unwrapping gifts. Now it’s also a bit sad though as every time I come back to London I find myself more and more of a tourist, my hard-won London knowledge reduced to the level of a parent going on holiday trying French in high school to speak: half memorized, clumsy, mostly obsolete. Restaurants I loved are gone, pubs have been converted into flats and Oxford Street seems to have become a giant candy store. Hackney now has an embarrassment of stations, and to my knowledge there may even now be more than one working ATM in the borough.
During the pandemic, I couldn’t return to London for two and a half years, and I found myself missing it viscerally. Of course I missed my friends there, cycling along the canal and going to the theater, but I also missed the elemental buzz of the city, the buzz and excitement of so many Londoners around, something Los Angeles with its endless sprawl just has. not. The novel I was writing during my pandemic was always set in London, but the role the city played in it grew exponentially the more I missed it. Of course I had to put the book in the past to account for my outdated knowledge, but even then I hope that one of my fellow Londoners reading it will forgive any inaccuracies.
dr. Johnson was, I think, both right and wrong. Looking back now, I don’t think I was tired of London or life, but just needed a rest or a change. It may seem sacrilege to challenge the great diarist and dictionary compiler, but he also wrote, “Whoever thinks to go to bed before noon is a scoundrel,” so he may not have been completely infallible — even if, like everyone else, , he may have enjoyed a fun night out at The Dolphin.
Sometimes people die by Simon Stephenson is out now