James Bloodworth’s rather moving valediction to the capital, written last week on the sixth anniversary of 7/7. Cross-posted from ‘Obliged to Offend.’
Dedicated to those who lost their lives to
religious fascism on this day six years ago
Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal
coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald
McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here;
and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend
much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not
that is, until I find gainful, paid employment.
Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next
to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in
the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own
misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic – or perhaps
disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many
present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job
As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous
employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult
was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being
a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new
contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a
postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is
rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to
eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a
week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.
The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown
around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week
for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying; especially when it comes
with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio”
ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break
their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house,
those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental
free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be
like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be
hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon
Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
London famously attracts its fair share of those
attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently
completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into
this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would
not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the
correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the
opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.
One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything
is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no
longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the
loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working
anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as
tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance
to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.
Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and
upper class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century
to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees
do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those
successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and
lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively
affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that
invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most
aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.
If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be
rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case
is there will be less in the boss’s pot with which to pay you, the worker,
whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages
inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and
if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals
who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.
The days always seemed to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is
that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much
of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great
speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often
bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a
quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking
round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted
in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.
It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra
Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence.
Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having
practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with
calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have
gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the
capitalist vulgarities he sees around him.
Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics
declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired
clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the
“spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a
fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective.
Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was
right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world
can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer
diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be
murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at
their local Mosques.
Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to
share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his
mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London
continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.