I’ve been living in London for three years now. In that time I’ve had seven jobs, lived in three different Zones with ten strangers, some of whom have become close friends. I have moved four times – twice in the last year – and once when the choice to do so was not mine.
When I look back to where I was three years ago I had no idea what to expect. I was terrified yet thrilled at the prospect of the opportunities that lay ahead. And so, with the experience I’ve gained over the past three years I thought I’d share what it’s really like to live here.
London is a tough nut to crack and you really need to weigh up what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to do that. For example, over the past three years my monthly rent has steadily increased to the point where, when I was recently back home and chatting to a friend who’s just bought a house, I discovered that I pay three times his monthly mortgage in rent. Renting here is stupidly expensive but if you’re a single freelancer you may get used to it because you, my friend, are an undesirable candidate for a mortgage. London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has pledged to create more affordable housing for Londoners but it’s not going to happen overnight. Those of us with a variable 9-5 will need massive deposits, so if you’re here for the long haul you’d better get to saving.
It’s often said you’re only ever two pay cheques away from living on the streets but in London even a steady wage can’t guarantee a roof over your head. Homelessness in the capital city has exceeded crisis point with housing charity Shelter calculating there are over 170,000 homeless people living here today. Only an estimated 8,000 of those are sleeping rough. The rest are hidden away in hostels and temporary accommodation; whole families often squeezed into one room. Individuals working zero hour contracts for minimum wage, often picking up jobs hours away from where they’ve been temporarily housed. As The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty wrote back in December, these are the people who work in Pret. In Starbucks. In EAT. In our factories and pubs, forced to serve and smile on a daily basis when they have so little to be happy about.
You can always tell when someone is new to London: they dawdle about, eyes to the sky, horrified by the poverty slumbering beneath broken down cardboard boxes in the doorways of the English National Opera. Seasoned Londoners are steely-eyed, blank expressions, smart phone in hand, pushing their way onto the Tube. I don’t think they – we – mean to seem so stern. It’s something of a coping mechanism, you see. Perhaps a response to compassion fatigue. I vividly remember the distress I felt when I first moved here. I had never seen such poverty – we didn’t have rough sleepers back home at that time – and I wasn’t ready for the frequency with which I had to face it. It took me to some very dark places and I think if I hadn’t begun to harden up I’m not too sure where I’d be today. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not devoid of compassion and I don’t believe my fellow Londoners are, either. It’s just that the feeling of helplessness; that you’re never doing enough to help all those who need it – it can be debilitating. But there are things which we can all incorporate into our days and nights to help. More on that later.
My last con to living in the big smoke is just that: London is absolutely bogging. In the space of just 5 days London exceeded its annual pollution allowance for 2017. The figure 9,500 refers to the annual number of deaths as a result of air pollution. Understandably Mayor Khan has a lot to say about it here and, in a bid to remedy the situation and improve air quality across the capital, he has set aside £875 million to clean up the city over the next five years.
You’re probably beginning to wonder why I still live here after reading that, eh? Well, tough as it is, if you can keep your head above water London can be an incredible city to spend time in. The whole world is here – you can meet people from any country you can imagine, learn about their culture and share part of yours with them. I have met so many interesting people from different walks of life that I would never have otherwise crossed paths with. London is the definition of multiculturalism and while that is a word which can put people on guard elsewhere, it is something we heartily embrace. Last year we elected our first ever Muslim Mayor and I have to say, so far, so good. He’s a welcome change from the former Etonion who went on to lead the country on a drunk conga away from the European Union.
Another great by-product of London’s multiculturalism is ALL THE FOOD. You can find any cuisine your heart desires, at *almost* all hours of the night. From the curry houses at one end of Brick Lane to all hours beigel shops at the other; the purse-friendly Turkish restaurants of Green Lanes to all out swank with Afternoon Tea at Claridges you can definitely eat well in this city. The downside is few places outside the city can match the wealth of different cuisines on offer here so you’re a bit spoiled should you ever leave.
But should you decide to leave for a little break, London is probably the best placed UK city from which to do so. We have 6 airports flying to all corners of the globe and you can find some great last minute deals allowing you to jet off for a weekend. And if air travel isn’t your thing you can hop on the train at St Pancras and hop off in Paris in 2.5 hours or hire a car for the day and hit the motorway.
Living in London has allowed me to carve out a career in television that I could only dream of back home. It is a fantastic place to network and collaborate and I am so glad I took the plunge and moved here when I did. My dream is to one day move back home – but not before stopping off elsewhere first. Berlin maybe? I’d like to start my own production company, drawing on local talent and, hopefully, encouraging some of the friends I have made in the industry here to come and invest in Northern Ireland too.
Until next time,
In addition: I wrote this post a couple of months ago, long before the Westminster attack. I stand by what I’ve said. And, if I may be so bold, I’d like to add one last line: Many of us have made sacrifices to live in this city and we share a resilience and a determination to speak out; to defend the rights of people we know and people who we haven’t yet met. We are not afraid.