Social interaction in London is often understood, implicitly, as an attempt to mutually self-promote, impress and inspire longing. Places like Shoreditch in the East, and Soho in the West are full of burning individuality, people so hot they’re too hot to handle. London knows it is a competition. London knows you do or die. The fact is that the denizens of London are, invariably, à la Dick Whittington, drawn to the Big Smoke by ambition, desire and avarice. The city is like a magnet, pulling all the energy of the ambitious towards its center, rendering it a black hole, and each new arrival comes longing to be that magnet.
Londoners are revolted by commitment
Londoners cannot reach out, share their needs, fears, inadequacies and vulnerabilities, for fear of their neediness being distasteful and off-putting those around them. London fears you will walk away. This fear means that London, therefore, doesn’t do commitment. Commitment means the competition has stopped, that a mate or a friend has finally been chosen, that the game has come to an end, it involves a trusting in one’s family and friends, a resting on one’s laurels. In London people don’t commit because they think they will be taken advantage of, that their laurels will be whisked away in the back a white transit van. Therefore, in London there is am affected shared blindness to, a sneering contempt of commitment, whilst the desire for it burns strongly in each and every heart.
This lack of commitment can be seen not just in London, but also towards London. French people, like may immigrants arriving in London feel a good deal of ambivalence with regards to their new home. True, French immigrants, like many immigrants, arrive in the Big Smoke, anticipating opportunity, excitement and stimulation. However these feelings mask a deep sense of uncertainty about their identify, belonging, future and their acceptability and desirability. It has been suggested that French people deal with their insecurities by telling themselves that they will only be in London for a few years, as if their relationship with London will never mean anything, will never be more than a fling, they will eventually return home to their true love. Furthermore they adopt the attitude that rather than them needing London, it is somehow London that needs them, or that somehow they had never asked to be in London in the first place. This results in an attempt to create a world within a world, a home from home. This can be seen in the remit of French Radio London who aim to accompany press review of French newspapers with a “heavy dose of nostalgic music” to give listeners a “sense of being home”. One Frenchman, Hamid Seny, living in London for ten years, noted how his compatriots and he would, when first arrived in London hold on to a “belief of le grandeur de la france, let us teach you savoir-vire let us teach you food, let us show you how great we are”. Furthermore French people would tend to not get too involved with Londoners, congregate together and speak in French with each other. Seny noted, “I remember we were speaking English in the workplace we had to and then outside we would speak French, and we would shout in French, like we are French were different were more sophisticated because we are French.”
Isolation and loneliness
The consequence is that London is lonely, isolated and scared, and unable to do anything about it. It never ever wants to say, ‘I’m lonely’ or ‘I don’t know what to do with myself’. London is full of machomen, machowomen and workaholics. Talking to Christopher Long in 1989, a 28 year old advertising executive said, “I want a man and a relationship but a career hardens you, particularly in London. Also, you’re so tired at the end of a day that it seems impossible you could cope with a job, children, domestic chores and a husband. It’s a vicious circle: the less dependent you become on relationships to keep you occupied, the more you find alternative ways of enjoying yourself. The fewer relationships you have, the fewer you want.” Londoners become addicted to institutionalized and cultural contrived situations for their sense of belonging, work, nightclub, pub, but not chilling out with a friend, doing nothing with a partner, going for a stroll with a dog. They talk about art, style, fashion, food, places, but not about how they feel, and who they feel for. Its all about how you look, but if you’re left alone with your feelings then… In 2010 Robert Montgomery plastered the following message on a Kingsland Road billboard, “The spectacle of advertising creates images of false beauty so suave and so impossible to attain that you will hurt inside and never even know where the hurt comes from, and in all pictures now the famous people have already begun to look lost and lonely.”
Londoners instead experience a real pressure to affect a faux contentment. In 1989 a 32 year old partner in a chain of London wine bars commented to Christopher Long “London’s so big and intimidating that I think most people don’t think they’ll succeed by presenting themselves as themselves. They prefer to fit an image which says, ‘I’m like this’ when what they mean is ‘I’d like to be like this but deep down I don’t like what I really am’.”
This faux contentment manifests in narcissism. Whilst London wants to prove to you that it has friends, that it has plans, and schemes, and arrangements and dates, but it never wants to know about yours. London will never wait to listen to your answer once it has asked you ‘how are you today?’ London is narcissistic, it is a great big juicy ready to explode narcissist.
It also manifests in apathy. Londoners it is said will not look you in the eye. Londoners don’t commonly make friendly eye contact, which is a precursor to an airey conversation about the faults of the weather or the stresses of travellign on London transport. They don’t tend to do that. The thing about eye contact is that it is always saying I’m vulnerable, in that I want to be affected by you, I need to be affected by you and I’m prepared to be affected. Apathy, avoiding eye contact, is a display of strength, to be apathetic, to be in your own world, is to suggest that you have a world worth being in, which trumps anything that your immediate physical and social environment might have to offer you.
This faux contentment also manifests in smugness, a silent contendedness, one which never gets worked up, which never lets go, which freaks out or laughs out loud. “Londoners don’t dance” said Ebony Bones, looking with dismay, into the eyes of the assembled morbid masses besuited and bebooted, cold and maudlin staring up at her, after she had just banged out one of her punchier and beatsy tunes. She spoke as if she was telling herself never to take a chance on a London crowd again, as if this was the last of man times that she was gong to be cheated on and let down. Americans often seem to feel the need to show how good things are by bellowing at each other about how such and such an activity was such fun. Londoners achieve the same thing by saying nothing and looking smug.
When the apathy is combined with a determination to create a smug self-centred zone or affect, contributes to another quality of Londoners, politeness. Londoners like to show that they are happily content within themselves, by demonstrating gracious manners and politeness. Londoners often say ‘sorry’ to a person who has bumped into them, even when it is the other person’s fault. This act of politeness, is not simply about being good spirited, it also means the person is saying I can take this hit, I’ve got far more important things in my life than this to get involved with you.
It’s a vicious circle. This laissez-fairism, faux contentment, smugness, apathy, call it what you like imprisons those who manifest it, and binds them up with their loneliness. New arrivals to London often complain, that open minded and open hearted, they find London an exclusive club, some of whom may actually be exclusive loners.
Is London different to anywhere else?
The question is, is what Londoners experience any different to anywhere else? I would say it probably is. There is a need in London, to be seen as interesting, whereas in other places, towns and cities, boring is fine thank-you very much, boring means you are happy with yourself, you are happy with your partner, you aren’t looking for something you don’t have, you are content, and you can calm down sufficiently that you can feel your own heart beat, and that of your partner, and you can tune into the benefits and comfort, and life-sustaining presence of a person in your life, and appreciate that those benefits are worth whatever limitations might be perceived of your partner, yourself or your situation in life. In London, nothing is certain, people move in crowds, in mania and hysteria, in ways that no-one really understands, but which everyone can feel.