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Life in the big smoke

Finding the London Stone

I’ve been meaning to visit the London Stone for a bit over a year. This weekend I decided the time had come. On a Sunday the streets are quiet, the buses glide through normally congested areas and the financial district, where the stone can be found, is silent and empty.

Heavy clouds hung over London, the pavements had a glossy varnish of early morning rain. I took the bus south and looked up the stone on Wikipedia. No one seems to know exactly what its purpose was or how old it is. It was first written about in the 1550s and even then people seemed to think it was old. Some have speculated this was the stone King Arthur pulled Excalibur out of, as if he was a real king and Excalibur a real sword. Others think it might be an index stone, pointing to a stone circle that once stood on the site of St Paul’s Cathedral. My favourite theory is that it’s a sacred terminus stone dedicated to Jupiter. Supposedly these stones were placed in the centre of any Roman city. London started out as Londinium after all, a small outpost of the Roman empire.

The bus took me past dark and slumbering office buildings. Through the windows I sometimes spotted security guards reading morning papers or chatting to cleaners. The cafés and restaurants were quiet and ghostly, their purpose lost on a day when there are no customers and no bright lights. The streets were empty, except for a few packs of tourists in brightly coloured rain jackets.

I got off near Bank and took Walbrook Street south toward Cannon Street. I realised, as you do sometimes in this city, that I had never walked down this street before. In every area, even the ones you know well, there are always new places to explore. London unfurls and stretches out like a coastline, there are labyrinths to explore. How many miles would these London streets add up to? I tried to Google it, but couldn’t find an answer.

I couldn’t remember having walked down Cannon Street before and stopped for a moment, finding my bearings. Then I set off east, looking for 111 Cannon Street, where the stone sits today (it’s been moved a couple of times). Even though I knew it’s now placed within the foundation of a WHSmith I still managed to walk past it and had to turn around at 119 Cannon Street. The stone itself is pretty underwhelming, hidden behind metal bars and glass so murky and dark it’s almost impossible to make out what’s behind it.

I tried to muster up some feelings of respect on solemnity. This was the London Stone after all, the stone that’s been mentioned by different writers and historians over the last 500 years. It’s the mystery foundation stone that might make London crumble and fall if removed. I felt slightly self-conscious. This was clearly a forgotten and unloved landmark. I couldn’t imagine many tourists stopping at this spot or the commuters heading to their offices in the city on a weekday paying it much attention. Feeling underwhelmed I moved on.

I spent the morning exploring the alleys in and around Bank. This is one of the oldest parts of the city. The streets feel heavy, the buildings loom large and tall. They even smell heavy, of dust and stone. Between them runs a maze of alleys where unexpected smaller buildings, restaurants or offices, are crammed between giants.

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Two street sweepers were taking break in one of the alleys. Some tourists hurried past on the roads outside. In between the buildings I was mostly on my own. I passed the Jamaica Wine Bar on St Michael’s Alley and spotted a church. The choir was practicing for the morning’s service and I snook in and listened for a while. As a few people arrived for the service I made my way out, feeling like an intruder. I continued on, got lost around Aldgate, the sun broke through the clouds, I walked in vain looking for an open coffee shop. Eventually my homing instinct took me to Spitalfields, where there is always coffee. I sat down and read and wrote for a while, making a promise to myself that I’ll spend more Sunday mornings roaming around the city.

Back in rainy London

London. It’s eight days since we landed at Heathrow. The day after we left Finland the temperature in my hometown dropped to minus 27. Cold enough to make your hair turn white with frost and your nostrils stick together when you inhale. London hovers around 7 plus. Drizzle-gray. Sunshine and showers. Mostly showers.

Today I walked past the big house and the deer at Clissold Park. The sun was out. Orange light in the puddles. Bright and early joggers rushing past. I stopped to say hello to the deer. Then I met up with Madicken and we spent the morning writing together in a café. All the other customers had brought their laptops too. Madicken spotted an actor sitting behind us. It’s very north London. I wrote some words and I was pretty happy with them. Then I came home and read about the publishing industry and suddenly everything felt impossible. I did my taxes. I downloaded Spotify again and created a radio station based on Sia. I’m clicking thumbs down on anything that isn’t Sia.

This month is one of small tasks. It’s too early for a big picture. There is one thing and then the next and maybe soon the year will start taking shape. I took me a week to shake the post-Christmas fog. I went home to Finland and didn’t turn on my phone for the first five days. A sweet, disconnected rebellion. Gerry and I went for long walks when it was light. The inlet near the house thawed and then froze over again. The ice was washed up by a storm and looked like panes of broken glass, crushed and squeezed together. I’ve never seen it like that before. I ate well and often. I spent some time in the sauna. My muscles unwound themselves. I relaxed and stopped thinking about work, the future, everything. It takes a while to resurface from that. So here I am, tensing up again, telling myself I should do more yoga, writing lists and trying to get a sense of where this year will take me.

Image by David Marcu.

Feeding the fire

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog over the last few weeks. I’ve gone through an introspective period, when it’s felt more important to look inside, to read and to feel, rather than to broadcast. Sometimes it’s important to feed the fire.

I find it easy to get wrapped up in doing and will only pat myself on the back if I’ve been active and producing work. I forget how important those quiet in-between periods of soaking up new knowledge can be.

Last weekend I took a bus to central London (a place I normally avoid) and walked to the National Gallery. I chose the rooms at random and walked up to pictures that spoke to me. After about an hour the noise of the people, tourists and families, started to get tiring so I went to the cafe and read for a bit.

Later in the day I walked to one of my favourite places in London, Foyles Bookstore on Charing Cross Road. I spent most of the afternoon browsing, stopping at the fiction section and moving on to philosophy and psychology, picking up books that seemed interesting.

Bookshops are magical places. The smell of paper soothes me. I wonder if being surrounded by so many words somehow acts as an insulation to everyday life. Instead of spending all that time in my head, I pick up a book, I read someone else’s thoughts and it stops my mind for a moment. It’s meditative. I move on to the next book and get a flavour of someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

In my more new age-y moments I wonder if the books and the paper also insulate me from the stress of London. They act as a dampener, shutting out the noise, pollution, the electromagnetic signals, the stress and the adrenaline pumped people on the streets. I escape into bookshops and libraries every now and then. And right now I hunger for the fuel they offer me. It will be autumn soon. Perhaps this is nothing more than a hang-over from my school days, it’s the time of the year when I need and crave new knowledge.

Image by Joshua Earle.

Tired of paying a lot of rent in London? Rent a mansion

After the financial crisis something strange has happened in the London. Property prices have gone up 30 percent in the last five years. London mayor Boris Johnson has compared property in the city to bullions in the sky. Super-rich (and sometimes super-corrupt) from all over the world buy up apartments and houses because London property is seen as a safer and easier investment than many other things. Until recently buying expensive property was even one of the ways you could get a UK visa. This has meant rents are going crazy and those with an average income are moving out in large numbers.

The studio where Gerry has worked for the last eight years and where I now work too will be torn down in the near future. The plot of land will soon be covered in yet another dull apartment block where two bedroom flats are sold for £600k and up. The property developers want us to move out by March.

Because of this have spent a lot of time thinking about rent and house prices. I’ve been thinking about where to go next and how to make our money work for us in London. An average one bedroom apartment will now cost us over £1200 pounds per month. Finding something cheaper is difficult. Art studio space is even harder to come by as supply doesn’t meet demand.

But I have a vice. I like looking at property websites. I’m looking for the right solution, the odd one out, the loop hole that would allow us to stay here without spending more than 60 percent of our income on rent.

Here is one solution. Rent a mansion and pay only £944 per month. Wouldn’t you like to live here? I know I would.

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Of course you’d have to share the house with nine other people, but as there are three kitchens that’s not such a big problem. You’ll also have to fork up quite a lot of money in order to convince the letting agent you have enough income to sign the lease.

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Then there are some extra expenses like council tax (probably quite a lot for a property like this), electricity and heating.

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I’m not sure I can convince Gerry this is the idea for us. But it is an idea. Move in. Start a collective. Create an art movement. Sit in front of the fire place and listen to your flat mate playing the violin. Take long baths. Remember to mow the lawn. Light lots of candles. I wouldn’t be jealous.

You might think this is a bit over the top, but it’s not a totally daft idea. The larger the house you rent in London the less you pay per room. The demand for four plus bedroom houses isn’t as high as the demand for smaller houses and flats, so if you can band together with a couple of friends and scrape up a deposit big enough to rent a larger house you might be paying less rent than you would for a smaller property. This also goes for two bedroom versus three bedroom flats. Often a three bedroom flat works out cheaper. Just something to keep in mind if you’re trying to find a place to rent in London.

If you want to find out more about the mansion, here’s a link to the letting agent.

The why not to move to London post

About two years ago I wrote a post about how to move to London. I wrote it because a friend of my mother had a daughter who was moving to London and I thought I’d share what I knew about this on the blog. Back then I had no idea how popular the post would become, that people from all over the internet would find their way to this site, ask questions and offer their own advice. I love what that blog post has become, because everyone who interacts with it remind me of why I moved here in the first place, many share the same passion and love for the city that I have. I didn’t just move to London, I fell in love with the city.

But over the last six months or so doubts have crept in. I look around me and I question if London really is such a good place to move to now. The city has change and my perspective has changed as well. If you’re seriously considering moving to London now there are a couple of things you need to know.

1. This city is becoming very expensive, people spend more than half of their salaries on rent and transport. House prices are going up, rents are going up, one bedroom flats can cost you £2000/per month and that’s before you pay any bills. Affordable areas are being pushed further and further away from the centre.

2. If you move to London to start a well paid job then you will probably enjoy the city. If you’re independently wealthy then you’ll also get a lot out of living here. If you move to London because you’re following a dream, because you want to live freely and creatively, then you’re in for a bit of a let down. See point 1… it’s becoming very, very expensive to live here and that is pushing creative people out.

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3. Why London? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. Why break your back so you can afford to live here when that often means you’re working so hard you can’t really ever enjoy your life in the city. You could have a better work-life balance somewhere else. There are plenty of other great UK cities. Look at Glasgow, Manchester, Brighton, York, Birmingham and Cardiff. If you feel drawn to the UK you don’t have to live in London. If you’re British and you want to move to a big city, London isn’t the be all and end all anymore. According to The Guardian lots of people are moving to Birmingham. If you want to live really cheaply there is the Kent coast, Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, cities that are now attracting creatives pushed out of London. This is a poor part of the UK and rents are low, like they were in London’s east end in the early 90s, when all the creatives moved in.

4. Why move to the UK at all? There are so many great European capitals to look at, Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, places that can offer you the same things London had a few years back (which is not crazy expensive rents, a creative scene and likeminded people from all over the world).

Maybe I’m writing this because I’m older, because my love affair with London is coming to an end. I still enjoy living here, I still love many things about the city and I still occasionally want to hug myself when I cross the Thames on a bus and whisper “I actually live here”. But mostly the rosy coloured infatuation has faded and I see the city for what it is, expensive and unforgiving. And sometimes I think, wouldn’t life be a lot easier somewhere else.

For more about this
Cool London is dead and the rich kids are to blame
Living in London on a low income – a great break down of living costs in London by the Londonist

Images by Luis Llerena.