Has London reached peak toxicity?

·6-min read

It’s a shame about London. It hasn’t really worked out. It was a nice idea of the Romans’ and, like so many of their ideas, it seemed to catch on for a while. But having started in the roads and aqueducts category, over time it’s been moved into the feeding-Christians-to-lions section.

I’m not from London but I moved there because I wanted to be a comedian and London was where most of the TV and radio programmes were made, where a huge amount of the theatres were and the rooms above pubs where performances have to happen before theatres are interested, where the newspapers came from, where the publishers were headquartered – in short, the media and arts hub. I felt I had to go there.

I immediately found it horrible. Incredibly stressful and expensive. In theory, I knew it was a renowned city – but the reality of twentysomething life didn’t involve going to the British Museum or St Paul’s. It involved buying sliced bread and Dairylea in a nasty “Food and Wine” shop, for roughly the same price as the ingredients for a nutritious vegetable stir-fry for 20 if you were shopping anywhere else in the country and then eating them in a grim flat.

It involved the relentless noise of traffic and drilling. It involved anywhere nice being packed and anywhere deserted feeling frightening. It involved the post-apocalyptic vibe of the Northern line and the terrifying frailty of a £10 note under pub conditions. It involved spray from passing lorries and leafless trees fruiting bags of dog shit. I only stayed for the BBC.

This was 25 years ago and, in the intervening time, London has only got worse. It looks smarter now but in every meaningful way, it’s more forbidding. And by “every meaningful way” I mean money. It has become an ever more expensive place to try to exist, to the point where, in my current blessed affluence, I can’t quite work out how the person taking the money for my absurdly priced sandwich and a cup of tea, who doesn’t also have a regular berth on a TV panel show, can afford to rent somewhere close enough to get to the place I’m buying my lunch in order to hand it to me. “How does that work?” I think to myself but don’t inquire because this is London and its unfriendliness and consequent teeming anonymity is the one thing about it I immediately loved.

The place Saturday Live will be broadcast from isn’t Cardiff so much as not-London

And the BBC is going. God knows it may be going in general, but I mean it’s leaving London, in lots of tiny pieces. Last month, the news broke that Radio 4’s Saturday Live is now to be broadcast from Cardiff and, in consequence, the Rev Richard Coles, the brilliant and unique figure who has been presenting it for the past 12 years, will no longer be able to do so.

This is how discredited the concept of London has become. There are no plans to change the programme – the other presenter, Nikki Bedi, isn’t leaving the show and Coles was offered the chance to commute, and there’s no sense in which the format or content are going to be more Welsh or more south-western. So the place it’ll be broadcast from isn’t Cardiff so much as not-London. Quite insulting to Wales’s capital, which would probably prefer to develop its own programming, not just plug in some mics for a creative team heading their way along the M4.

Coles doesn’t live in London, but he lives much nearer London than Cardiff. This is not unusual. Geographically speaking, neither Cardiff nor London makes sense as a UK hub – nevertheless, London’s history of being one means that, within a radius of 50 miles from central London, there are around 18 million inhabitants. The same-size circle centring on Cardiff currently accommodates only about 5 million.

Yet more evidence of London’s cultural toxicity. The BBC feels that losing Coles, and access to a far larger pool of potential replacements, is a price worth paying to slough off the programme’s associations with the UK’s capital. It’s been the BBC’s direction of travel for years already: a decade ago, it sold the iconic Television Centre building in west London, which had the facility to make programmes as varied in scale and spectacle as Blackadder, Blue Peter and Strictly Come Dancing, and spent vastly more than the sum this raised on lavishly extending Broadcasting House where, despite this, the only TV show they can make is the news. The news is allowed to come from London, because the news is unpleasant.

The loss of Coles, a pop star, priest, raconteur and bestselling novelist, is an absurd sacrifice for a Radio 4 programme to make in order to be able to say that its noises are now being made 150 miles to the west. His talent is something that the BBC certainly wasn’t paying the market rate for, but it was profiting from his goodwill. It has squandered that resource by announcing his departure, under its new initiative of Norman Wisdom-style PR, with hurtful ineptitude. Knowing the classic performer’s psyche as I do, I doubt it will come as any consolation to Coles that this isn’t really about him.

The dislike of London comes not primarily from the millions struggling to live there, but from the conviction that those who don’t must see it as elitist. In the current climate, the whole notion of having a capital city feels inappropriate. “Who’s to say that one city is more important than the others?” people ask.

Doesn’t it help to have one, though? The streets paved with gold, a place of jeopardy and opportunity that draws in the young and energetic? That’s not what London is now, but it’s what it has usually been and could be again. Elites are not necessarily a problem if they are defined by merit rather than by having parents who can help with your rent.

London is a great city, but it’s unaffordable and a much less dynamic place as a result. It needs to pull in new people, with hopes, dreams, ambitions and ideas. Historically it has, but currently it doesn’t; it’s stagnant with oligarchs and people are starting to hate it as a result. A case of too many dicks and not enough Whittington.