I took the bus from Liverpool street to Angel, going past the new developments around Old Street. Skeletons of steel and concrete going up so fast only the people who live and work in the area will notice the progress, for everyone else a hole in the ground has suddenly turned into a skyscraper full of luxury flats.
Another new building going up. Glossy black signs, computer generated pictures of swimming pools, balconies with candles looking out over a night dark city, the glow of thousands of windows in the distance. They were selling an image, selling luxury, penthouse flats, views, comfort. And I was wondering – whose London is this? It’s not the city I fell in love with, not the city I moved to – yet this is the city I see everywhere around me now. My own city is disappearing.
Where did my London come from? Did it ever exist? There were decades when no one wanted to move here. When London was synonymous with men in suits and bowler hats, going to work in a black and white movie, pushing around paper. It was the city of stiff upper lips, of apartments so cold the whole of Europe made fun of the English, of bland food, of people who toed the line.
But there were other Londons as well. The swinging sixties, drugs and furs, short skirts, flowers, Notting Hill, Carnaby street, punks and mods, art, Soho, music, immigrants and Eastenders. Anger, fighting the system, ambition, creativity. This built the foundation for the London I fell in love with.
The modern equivalent of the men in bowler hats, are creating a new city. Numbers are taking over. Money has become more important than anything else. What does it all mean? What happens when you receive hundreds of thousands of pounds as a bonus every year, on top of an already high salary? What does that do to you, to your expectations, how does that make you look at money, at life?
What will happen to my London when all the flats will be penthouses and the only way to afford them will be to earn more than a 100 000 pounds a year? What will happen to the dreamers, the artists, the teachers, the cleaners, those of us who aren’t rich and who aren’t dreaming of earning a lot of money?
When I lived in Finland it never crossed my mind that people could earn different amounts of money, it didn’t matter. We all went to the same school and we all had access to good healthcare. It didn’t matter if someone drove a more expensive car than someone else. Before I moved here I couldn’t read the language of wealth. I had no idea one handbag meant something else than another. Of course I was aware of brands, but I couldn’t read the language of status, the clues that tell you this person has access to a different kind of life. This kind of knowledge never felt relevant in Finland. I regret having learned it. I regret sometimes considering what other people are earning and what they can afford. Why can’t enough just be enough?
The new London confuses me, it tells me my dreams aren’t adequate if I want to stay in this city. My dreams (and my income as a freelancer and writer) won’t stretch to cover a mortgage or even the rent for a flat that could house a family, it won’t cover fees to good schools or medical insurance (which we’ll probably be needed at some point).
The door is closing on the London that represented freedom and opportunities for creatives, for ambitious drop-outs, for risk-takers, seekers, dreamers. This city welcomes those who want and can earn a lot of money. The rest of us keep moving further out. But the questions keep buzzing around my head. What do I do if I still love this place? What do I do if I can’t see myself leaving London anytime soon?
What do all of us do who didn’t take the elevator ride to the top? Who are watching prices going up all around us? Where do we go next?