Rootlessness, isolation and insanity in London

It’s a paradox that so many Londoners face, they have ten million people within a ten mile radius, but they can often feel isolated, disconnected and rootless. The isolation and the paranoia that inevitably results from that causes many to go looking for answers. I think the interesting thing about these reflective pieces, is how the writer seems to be projecting his pain and frustration at not being able to connect in the way he or she would like, on to the less attractive attributes of Londoners, which are then generalised to the whole London population. Londoners then are depicted as being generally cold, intolerant, uptight, dismissive, impolite, which is less an accurate reflection on the city, but more a metaphor for the hopelessness that the author feels in terms of his being able to connect to people in an intimate and meaningful way.

For example, in 2009, Jay 24 wrote, “There are great things to do in this City and i’m sure the Historical side of London is appealing but the charm runs out very quickly, it’s way too urban for me. I have never ever experienced problems with racism with the native English and ethnic minorities here and i’m proud to say some of my best friends are Caucasian Londoners right down to African Americans. But i do feel though that people here are taught to be tolerant BUT are deeply intolerant (which can be a problem in itself) i see it everyday down to the way my international friends who lack English are almost frowned upon when speaking even though they attempt to adapt to English ways. Actually a Spanish friend of mine who recently left London after 6 months told me she made 0 English friends which was disheartening and she isn’t the shy and silent type!, I do feel London is full of cold people too caught up being busy to actually act with some friendliness and Kindness to strike up decent friendships and connections. Example… I think many of you fellow Londoners have been barged and bumped into in Central London without acknowledgment or an apology. And for all international newcomers to London apart from work colleagues and fellow countrymen i can understand it being very hard to strike up a huge friendbase. And even though London is a very worldly city i do feel people born in London aren’t very open minded to international visitors unless A) you speak fluent English or B) You’re naturally charming or Attractive. I can understand why people work so hard here since it’s a very expensive City to live in with so much competition for jobs. But i see too many people living for their careers and things material instead of living to experience the world beyond London. And as for London and relationships well that’s difficult! You think it wouldn’t be in a city full of different nationalities but the fact is people here tend to stick with their preferences whether it be race and what they’re specifically looking for in a partner and it makes me wonder.. what happened to being in a relationship for love and the emotional connections. I can imagine seeing so many people in my generation being single right up there in their 30’s and 40’s in the future. I think us Londoners need to take a page out of the Californians and smoke some 420 (weed) so we can all chill out and be open minded instead of being so uptight!

Future Dictator, a Black woman, added, “I feel like here (in London, for those of you that don’t know) people are so cautious. Even the international students are cautious. I know we have to go to class and do work but what about the rest of the hours doing the day. It’s not about the money you have, it’s just about getting together. Londoners and the work ethics, not getting together and chilling (perhaps its something to do with the weather).

Lizia replied to the comment saying, “That’s the same in any big city. When there are so many people around, of course you’re going to get knocked into a few times. I’ve lived in plenty of big cities and never been apologised to for someone walking into me. London is hardly exclusive in that respect.And even though London is a very worldly city i do feel people born in London aren’t very open minded to international visitors unless A) you speak fluent English I agree, but I don’t see why it’s unreasonable to
expect someone moving to a country to speak the local language pretty fluently. You can’t expect people to make friends with you, when you can’t communicate with them fully. After a while, it just becomes annoying having to explain a lot of the things you say, or them taking a long time to respond. And I say that as someone who has experienced living abroad and having to speak a different language. It’s not reasonable to expect the locals to go out of their way to befriend you, the onus is on you to adapt to the country you chose to live in. If you aren’t reasonably fluent, I don’t see how you can expect to make friends with people”

What Lizia’s comments draw our attention to, I think, is how these reflective pieces, are overdoing it, they are inaccurate, they are unreasonable in that they think it unreasonable to be sometimes aloof. The fact that, it is true, especially with indigenous Londoners, that once they have set up their networks and communities, there really is no need for them to go out on a limb to make friends with a new arriving foreigner. If that foreigner wants to become part of the local community they are going to have to accept their submissive position, compromise, change, adapt and spend a lot of time with the indigenous community. It takes a long time to be fully accepted, and years and years of hard work. Its more often the case that foreigners don’t want to fit in and adapt. This draws out attention to how the writer seems to be projecting his pain and frustration at not being able to connect in the way he or she would like, on to the less attractive attributes of Londoners, which are then generalised to the whole London population. Londoners then are depicted as being generally cold, intolerant, uptight, dismissive, impolite, which is less an accurate reflection on the city, but more a metaphor for the hopelessness that the author feels in terms of his being able to connect to people in an intimate and meaningful way.

In 2014, Australian immigrant, Claire Adams, writing for the Australian Times, posed the question, Are Londoners Allergic To Me? Why its hard to make friends with the locals.

She writes, “I’ve been living in London for nearly 10 years. The honeymoon period ended after four. Around this time the Underground went from novelty to daily grind, I observed traffic accelerates to run pedestrians over, and English accents lost their foreign lustre. I also realised how difficult it is to make decent friends in this city. Discounting the possibility Londoners may be allergic to my personality, I’ve had to consider why this is so, for the sake of my sanity. If you find yourself scratching your head as well, here are a few observations: London is vast, the geographic spread of London is enormous. There is also a definite north/south divide across the Thames. Regardless of the convenience of the Underground, most people will not make the effort for new associations if it involves travelling any distance at all and it takes up too much of their time. London is also massive in terms of population. Many are itinerant with short term visas. Associations on these terms will be fleeting and superficial. The established social networks are amongst the long term residents and most of these people already have friends and don’t need to make the effort for any more. Public vs private persona, Ever wondered why people who you met only last week just walk past you on the street? Meeting someone privately is easy, establishing connections outside of the context of the original association is near impossible. If you meet someone within an interest group, you need to regularly attend for a good ten years before they consider you quite safe and not an axe-wielding maniac. It takes a long time and great dedication. In private, most are approachable and friendly. In public, Londoners are polite but unkind. The paradox of the Internet/social media, The internet can crack open your social world. Subsequently, you will meet far more people via Meetups, club memberships or interest groups. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean you will make more friends. Like the proverbial fisherman, your net may be cast wider, but the holes are far bigger. You might meet more people and go further afield, but most associations will fall through. Londoners don’t tend to like being singled out and prefer to travel in packs. They are also quite reserved and require you to make the effort before they choose to do so. Social media may also hook you up to many more individuals, but it is also a useful tool to keep everyone at arm’s length. Texting, e-mail and Facebook are lazy and cheap ways of ‘staying in touch’ without making any effort for face to face contact. Lack of social flexibility, Londoners tend to have their spare time sewn up fairly tightly. Social diaries are booked months in advance. Many evenings will be accounted for and most will never cancel their gym class for one evening to have a spontaneous drink after work. If you stop attending a group no one will call you to get you back or make the effort for you outside of the club. Londoners also have certain ways of cutting you loose if they are not interested. If you have ever had someone agree to a social engagement with you and then cancel at the last minute, with a promise to ‘reschedule’, they never will. It is not a good sign when someone says they cannot make a proposed meeting and that they are busy for the next three months. There are plenty of empty gestures and not so much genuine substance. A fear starts to fester if they agree to one social engagement. They may be prevailed upon to do it again and then what? Will you be appearing, unannounced, on their doorstep with an overnight bag? Will you be asking to borrow substantial sums of money? Will you announce you have leprosy? It will never end! Best to shut you out at the beginning and avoid the embarrassment. What has kept me here for so long is my husband (he is a Londoner), his family and my employer, who has been the same since my arrival since 2005. I have also had to change my behaviour significantly. I only operate within interest groups and rarely make the effort to approach individuals. London is a fantastic place to live, but there is a limit. The hard part is deciding when I have reached it and it is time to go home.

Claire Adams article drew a great deal of comment from Australians, who seemed to feel rejected and disaffected. Trish said, “Know exactly what you mean. My wife is a Londoner and I have reached my limit after 12 years – we are leaving London on Monday to live in Queensland!!” Kathryn said, “This is my 14th year in London. There are a lot of things I enjoy about living in London but Ive given up trying to connect with locals and most of the Australians I knew have returned to Australia so thank goodness for the American’s and Europeans. I’m still trying to disconnect my husband – (English) from London, we live in South West London, we are planning to move to Sydney at some point in the future but I’m slightly worried about returning to Australia I hope it is still the same as my memories of living there.”

I think reflecting on the piece by Claire Adams, one thing that its hard for new arrivals to London to get their heads around, is that there really are no locals. Most of us are visitors, new to the city, and its for that reason that its hard to get to know the locals, there are none. Some people eventually come to terms with this, but as they do, so do they come to terms with the horrific nature of London life, that it is forever unsettled, people moving and out, that bonds, intimacy, familiarity, commitment and love are so hard to find in this city.

Other commentators had contrary experiences to those of Claire. One said, “My advice is to join a sports club. Work colleagues are harder to make friends with but the social aspect of sport lends itself to making friends. I joined a hockey club (East London HC) and there are quite a few antipodean types as well as Brits and others. But there is also a get back into netball campaign that has clubs and leagues springing up. You don’t have to be good to join.” Sandy said, “I felt this way after 18 months! Now I’m in one of the Home Counties, in a reasonably sized town within commuting distance to London. Have now got a great circle of local friends in the short space of 6 months and I can still get into London quickly and easily for work/play :)”

The fact that people have contrasting experiences to Claire suggests that the picture that some people paint of London, as being constituted of English people, who are extraordinarily conservative, closed and dismissive of any attempts to connect, is an overgeneralisation, that does not reflect the reality of London. Such comments do however, arguably, reflect the challenges and frustrations that some people face in trying to connect in London. It would be interesting to look into the family histories and backgrounds of the people who experience such frustration. Childhood experience, familial background and cultural context can play an important role in determining the sociability and acceptability of a person, which in turn, can if the person feels unwanted and unloved, inspire a sense of wanderlust with the expectation that acceptance will be found in a different, better place, i.e. London. However it is often the case that people who move on this basis, find that the personal and psychological impediments, that caused them to feel disconnected in the place they immigrated from, find, sadly, that the impediments also find their expression in their new city, London.

Looking for local friends in London? Try Meet Up.

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