Sunday, December 08, 2013


I was back in London yesterday, remembering why I left. For some reason, the tube seemed to be as crowded as a weekday rush hour, but the tourists and day-trippers lacked the steely determination of commuters and at one point I found myself in a gridlocked tunnel of suitcases and backpacks.

Has the tube always been this crowded?

Apparently, yes.

I'd travelled to London to meet two old friends. I hadn't seen them for 13 years, but within minutes we'd settled back into the same relationship we had as teenagers, albeit with better social skills. It seemed silly that we'd let so many years elapse before meeting again, but sometimes life gets in the way.

We grew up in leafy Richmond-upon-Thames (somewhere I never really appreciated until I visited the badlands of Neasden, Plumsted and Acton)  and when I was 16, I naively assumed that we would all remain in the area until our dying days, still meeting up for odd game of snooker, or perhaps to go cycling in Bushy Park.

Taken during my 'stripes' phase

The late teens are a magical time in some ways - a nebulous borderland between childhood and adulthood, when newfound freedoms aren't crushed by the burdens of responsibility.

Naturally I squandered some of this time sitting in my bedroom feeling angst-ridden, but even that was enjoyable in an odd sort of way. I was the hero of my own narrative, able to delude myself with grandiose ideas that didn't have to be sustantiated by achievements. As one girl said to me, "You're all talk and no action."

I wouldn't go back to the past, but I wouldn't change it either.

Thirty years on, none of us live in Greater London. I left 12 years ago. One held on until earlier this year, when it became possible for him to work from home. The other left in the 1980s. Another friend, who wasn't there yesterday, discovered the Kent coast before it started to appear on property programmes.

The flight of hundreds of thousands of Londoners to the shires has, until recently, almost passed without comment, but next to immigration it is one of the biggest demographic changes this country has seen since the 19th century.

In some ways, it is simply of reversal of what happened in the Victorian age, when London's population quadrupled in size and small villages and towns became swallowed up by the growing metropolis. Five generations ago, my ancestors left rural Kent in search of a better life. Today, their descendents are leaving London for the same reason.

Perhaps, like me, they don't share Boris Johnson's vision of the future and would prefer to live in a less 'dynamic' economy that isn't obsessed with unsustainable growth. I suspect they would also like to live in a town where they know their neighbours and can feel reasonably certain that in 50 years' time, the streets and houses won't have changed beyond all recognition.

But there is a price to be paid for this mass exodus. Some local people now sardonically refer to Lewes as "Islington-on-the Downs" and resent the fact that they are being priced out of the area by an influx of Londoners. Where can they go?

The other night I went to a local screening of a worthy Chilean film about the 1988 referendum that rejected General Pinochet. The hall was packed, which was great, but it also made me realise how true the Islington jibe was. The town is becoming increasingly homogenous, like a retreat for Guardian readers.

If friends hadn't moved away and property prices hadn't gone through the roof, would I have stayed in Richmond-upon-Thames?

Perhaps. It wasn't a bad place to live:

On Richmond Green, outside 'The Cricketers' pub

On balance, I'm still glad that I moved to Lewes. Which is just as well, because unless you're in possession of a large fortune, once you leave London, there's no going back.

Finally, a clip from the 'good old days'. I wonder if any of the children in this clip still live in London?


Debra said...

When is "the good old days" ?
My mother in law who lives in a close Paris suburb could empathize with this clip, although she herself would never dare tell any of the immigrant children off...
There is exode going on in France, too.
The megalopoles have become too expensive to buy to live in.

Catherine said...

Great clip, that appears to be South East London, where I live in Zone 2. I am near the new East London line, but still haven't been on it as I prefer buses. Luckily we have a good network of them. When I lived in NW London I spent a lot of time on the Jubilee and Met lines. The rush hours were definitely the worst, but I was lucky to work shifts so was able to travel outside those times frequently. Have only lived in London since arriving here in the Seventies, so not sure how I would fare outside but I do give it a lot of thought. Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Dorset and Devon are the areas I search the most. I used to want to live in Brighton but gave that idea up a long time ago. It's just London by Sea now.

Steerforth said...

Debra - I suppose that as long as the property is unregulated, this process is inevitable. I'm not sure what the answer is, but the current situation is unsustainable.

Catherine - Finding the right place outside London is hard. In the end, I picked a town that is a little like Richmond-on-the-Downs, as I didn't like the look of places like Burgess Heath - the sort of dull, 'middle England' towns where everyone reads the Daily Mail. Unfortunately, I think the property prices of the nicer market towns are now nudging towards London levels.

Nota Bene said...

Lewes is one of my favourite places...managing to cultivate that 'slightly behind the times' feel, whilst at the same time having everything you can possibly need. It does work both ways - Bill's, that fabulous eatery which began in Lewes and Brighton appears to have been franchised and is now all over London. All those Londoners who come down to Sussex will soon find the daily commute is quite a drag, so I hope they can make themselves useful...

Steerforth said...

Nota Bene - I think the 'behind the times' veneer is part of the attraction. Perhaps people are retreating to a world that reminds them of their childhood - a Ladybird meets Camberwick Green vision of England. But at the same time, they don't want to have to travel miles to buy an obscure spice for that recipe in the Guardian Weekend magazine.

Can you have it all? Almost, but I wish the houses and gardens here weren't so tiny. I can run from one end of my garden to the other in under three seconds.

Martin Hodges said...

Excellent post, Steerforth. I count myself incredibly lucky to be living where I do. Our modest rented flat was supposed to be a stop-gap while I completed my postgraduate studies, but we're still here 14 years on. I'm now retired, and fell off the property ladder a long time ago. A blessing in disguise, for sure. Most of the houses in this area change hands from £650k upwards. It is idyllic, although at least two villagers have helicopter pads, which breaks the spell from time to time.

Steerforth said...

Martin - In many ways it's a pity that we can't return to the days when people felt able to rent, certain that jobs would always be easy to come by and rents would be affordable. We have become slaves to our property-owning culture and the boost in earnings that occured when housewives started going out to work was all too quickly absorbed by rising house prices. I worry that we're heading for a terrible crisis when the interest rates inevitably rise, so you're well out of it.

Canadian Chickadee said...

About three years ago, the school I attended had a big reunion. Reconnecting with some of the people has been wonderful. I'd forgotten how funny and wonderful some of them were.

A few people hadn't changed at all -- in some cases, not necessarily a good thing!! :)

Roget said...

Beware people, of course, who begin with "Far be it from me...." - but far be it from me to ripple the quiet waters of approbation in which your blog habitually trails its fingers, Steerforth. Yet I wonder, in my stereotypically curmudgeonly way, whether you are beginning to employ newspapers just a tad too much in denying huge swathes of people any element of individuality. It's entirely possible to have read the Grauniad for more than 50 years (as I have) but loathe the Ottolenghi groupies and Will Self (as I do). And I bet there are at least a dozen good burghers of Burgess Heath (where that?)who actually DON'T read the Daily Mail. Even if Soames is their MP. There are good things (surely many of them) about the middle class in this country - after all, your accumulated blogs are wonderful evidence of this in their own right. Mr Barraclough might well have said that you are being a little harsh on a well-meaning body of people and who would argue with Mr B? Having said that, I was convulsed and my argument completely disarmed by the thought of a hall full of people earnestly watching a Chilean film about Pinochet. It was presumably what Michael Frayn once satirically referred to as "our side, out in force."

Steerforth said...

Carol - My friend who used to like record shops STILL wanted to hang around in HMV, 32 years after he became a fan of Duran Duran! Isn't there an old Chinese saying - "Mountains move, but people don't change"?

Steerforth said...

Roget - Being of an indolent disposition, I far prefer sweeping generalisations and crude stereotypes. But you're right, I expect that the outskirts of Burgess Hill are littered with Telegraph readers whose postal addresses are "Ditchling North". I

As for the Pinochet film, there were more people there than when I saw 'Airplane' at Twickenham Odeon in 1980. I think I would have been happier watching 'Airplane' with the Lewes audience, or even better, the film version of 'Porridge'.

zmkc said...

That's such a great clip. The weird but comforting thing about Richmond now is that it's so expensive but it's also so horribly on the flight path. If you stand on that nice green bit behind the shopping bit, (I clearly really know the area, don't I?), planes come over extremely low about every minute. So yah boo sucks to all the millionaires, I always think, as I look around at all their mansions vibrating from the noise and filling up with the delicious smell of aircraft petrol (which I do genuinely like). They must be a bit dim as well as rich. Mind you, Richmond park is unquestionably lovely, even if I did once get butted by a deer there when I was about four. But that's another (pretty dull) story.

Steerforth said...

Zoe - The odd thing is that when you live there, you don't notice the noise. I remember visitors asking me how I could put up with the planes and I was baffled by the question, because I was completely oblivious to the sound of aircraft (with the exception of Concord, of course).

My favourite part of the area is the Thames towpath on the Middlesex side. I used to cycle along there every day and in summer, it was glorious.

Catherine said...

I lived in Barnes for about a year, and the aircraft noise there was appalling. You literally had to stop having a conversation (indoors) while a jet was overhead. Not sure I could ever get used to that noise.

Is there an area where Independent readers congregate? I quite like the Telegraph on a Saturday. Does that make me akin to a Daily Mail reader?

Steerforth said...

Catherine - I think you have to grow up in the area. I was born and bred and didn't notice the slow, incremental rise in air traffic. When people complained, I used to wonder what all the fuss was about. Wasn't it normal to stop talking every three or four minutes until the noise had died down?

Boris airport is a great idea.

Re: newspapers - I'm very confused. I like the dry, cultivated fogeyism of the Telegraph, used to love the Independent before the staff cuts began to show, regularly read the Times in spite of Murdoch (because the journalists are so good), and agree with a lot of what the Guardian says, but find it so irritatingly worthy.

I think the Telegraph is probably the polar opposite of the Mail - old money versus new money.