Dr. Samuel Johnson remarked that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Unexpectedly, his words now resonate with me more strongly than ever before: Am I really tired of London, and, if so, am I tired of life?
After the pandemic, I (like many others) face a dilemma: Do I leave London and work from home in the country, or stay and contend with the costs and difficulties of urban life? As the weeks and months of lockdown went by, the balance began to tip for me, a native Londoner, toward abandoning the city in favor of pastures new. And I wasn’t alone. The allure of “working from home” seized hold of our minds with the force of a revelation, though it was the norm for most of human history until its comparatively brief eclipse by the “office.” Dread of contagion drove us to rattle the bars of what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, and, to our surprise, the prison door swung open. Offices emptied by the thousands. A new wave of urban flight began; it has not subsided yet.
This exodus has had a big impact on villages such as the Burnhams on the North Norfolk coast, where the prices of some properties have almost tripled in three years. Overall, prime seaside real estate rose by 24.3 percent during the pandemic. The incredible boom in real-estate prices in the English countryside at the height of the pandemic may now be over, however: for the first time since 2020, annual house-price growth in well-connected urban markets rose by 7 percent in 2022, compared with 6.7 percent in rural areas. Along the most beautiful parts of the coast, prices rose by just 0.3 percent in the three months up to June 2022.
London still languishes: tourists and business visitors have returned, but Londoners keep leaving. Many pandemic refugees have found that rusticity doesn’t suit them, but few are coming back to the capital. Instead, they’re moving to smaller, prettier cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, York, or Bristol, which have enjoyed a renaissance. Employers are more flexible: many people work three or four days in the office and the rest from home—which might be hours away, in an elegantly converted barn, dolled-up farmhouse, or eco-dwelling in a bucolic hinterland.
For my children’s generation, now in their twenties and early thirties, the unaffordability of London, long legendary, has attained ludicrous levels. Pandemic notwithstanding, real-estate prices in London remain by far the highest in the U.K.: according to the Office of National Statistics, the average price for a London home in July 2022 was $600,000, nearly double the national figure. When I was my children’s age, in the 1980s, a two-bedroom apartment here was within reach for a single person on a modest salary; married and with a baby on the way, I managed to buy a four-bedroom house in the up-and-coming borough of Hackney. A house on the same street now goes for about $2 million—far beyond the means of a generation already burdened with student debt. Our elder daughter has stayed in London, but she and her boyfriend, both Oxford graduates, are resigned to renting indefinitely because real-estate and mortgage interest rates are even more ruinous. Our younger son and his fiancée, both with good jobs, hoped to buy a small apartment next year, but the sudden rise in mortgage interest rates has forced them to postpone their plans. Our younger daughter went to university in Manchester six years ago, has settled there, and has no intention of returning to London. Earlier this year, our eldest son gave up an excellent job to emigrate to his wife’s native country of Poland—largely because they decided that London was too expensive a place in which to bring up their two small children.
These young people are tired—not of London but of the price that this metropolis exacts for the privilege of living here. Those who stay tend to live for the present, renouncing the chimera of future homeownership for more immediate pleasures. If they prefer the fleshpots to a goal beyond the reach of even the most ascetic work ethic, who can blame them? For them, London makes accumulation pointless; the point of being here is consumption. Life in the capital is a life without capital.
It is also, increasingly, a life acquainted with chaos. Under the municipal misery of London’s fainéant mayor, Sadiq Khan, the urban entropy of disorder has spread to every corner of the capital. Khan’s sole contribution in seven years at City Hall has been to fire the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. The police, their morale shattered, are fighting a losing battle against record levels of knife crime and gang warfare. Meantime, the authorities turn a blind eye to radical environmentalists from amorphous groups such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, which can bring London’s transport and business to a halt with impunity. Our Supreme Court has decreed that, on the rare occasions when these fanatics find themselves in court, juries must consider whether their obstructive and illegal conduct might be justified by a notional right to protest. The effect of this ruling has been to tip the scales of justice in favor of acquittal, thereby giving carte blanche to the legions of Greta Thunberg wannabes who enjoy reducing the capital to chaos. Admittedly, the scale of disorder in our day does not compare with that of Georgian London—the Gordon Riots of 1780, an anti-Catholic pogrom, saw embassies and prisons stormed and Downing Street and the Bank of England attacked, before the army intervened and shot hundreds of rioters dead. Disorder in London today is not the work of the disenfranchised or the downtrodden but of the educated and the entitled. It is consequently less epic than epicurean.
My personal predicament is complicated. I am responsible for an elderly parent in London; most of my friends and family are here; I thrive on the intellectual and social buzz of a great capital, with its politics and parties, its clubs and theaters, its concert halls and art galleries. To leave London, the city where I was born and to which I returned in adulthood, would be a renunciation of pleasure, an abdication of responsibility, a self-denying ordinance. Yet the forces drawing me away from the metropolis are also powerful. The familiarity of what was once a patchwork of cosmopolitan villages has been forfeited by municipal philistinism. The urban is no longer so urbane.
Like the humble snail, moreover, I could take my home, my microcosm of civilization, on my back. The attractions of London shrink in proportion to the growing ease with which we may now choose to work or play, raise a family or retire in comfort, make or lose a fortune, at a distance from the capital. As Dr. Johnson’s contemporary Thomas Gray famously put it in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
In short: Does the Johnsonian dictum still hold true? By looking at the general predicament in part through my own circumstances, perhaps I can throw some light on how this old debate has changed since Johnson’s day.
Samuel Johnson had little time for country life. In conversation after breakfast on September 20, 1777, his friend and biographer James Boswell doubted whether, “if I were to reside in London, the infinite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it.” Johnson gently admonished him: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Indeed, by the late eighteenth century, London dominated the rest of England to an extent unprecedented at home or abroad. Having surpassed Paris in population and wealth, it was already the greatest city in Europe, and probably the world. By 1800, the inhabitants of England and Wales numbered nearly 9 million, having increased rapidly from 5 million since 1700. London had almost doubled in size over the same period, from fewer than 600,000 residents to nearly 1.1 million. In his 1820s travelogue Rural Rides, William Cobbett nicknamed it “the Great Wen”—a sebaceous cyst—on the face of England. A century later, as the capital of the British Empire, London’s population had multiplied more than sixfold, to 6.5 million—still the largest on earth, though New York was rapidly catching up.
Demography tells one story, but Georgian London witnessed a qualitative leap as well as a quantitative one. By Johnson’s lifetime (1709–84), virtually all the nobility and many of the gentry had acquired London town houses. Hence, the city had become not only the political, administrative, and commercial center of England but also its social and cultural hub. The Season—when young women were introduced at court and balls were held—dazzled society for the first half of the year, but the intellectual life of the capital continued year-round in the coffeehouses, clubs, and salons of Johnson’s milieu. This was a metropolis where a literary celebrity of his caliber could rub shoulders with brilliant politicians such as Edmund Burke, exotic visitors from abroad like Benjamin Franklin, or artistic luminaries, such as Sir Joshua Reynolds or David Garrick.
If this uproarious cosmopolis was not the first European city of which one could justly say that it had “all that life can afford,” it was surely the first in which a time traveler from the twenty-first century might have felt at home. Not the Venice of the Doges, or the Florence of the Medici; not the Constantinople of the Byzantines, or the Ottomans, or the Rome of the Renaissance; not even the Paris of the Valois, the Bourbons, or the Bonapartes—none of these cities, magnificent as they were, was recognizably the model of modernity that Johnsonian London had become, populated by those who might be our contemporaries, despite their powdered wigs and quaint customs. Hanoverian England was by no means a perfect model—Johnson himself, like many others, thundered against the slavery and colonial oppression that underpinned much of its wealth and that now loom so large in retrospect. Too large, in fact, for the focus on slavery and colonialism obscures the bigger picture of a society in which the habits and rewards of liberty were burgeoning.
Johnson’s physical health had always been delicate, ever since as a boy he was “touched” for scrofula by Queen Anne, one of the last of his compatriots to receive the dubious curative benefits of thaumaturgical royalty. Not only was he a lifelong martyr to dermatological afflictions; he was also asthmatic, and his nervous tics were so bad that he may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. Why, then, did this perpetually sickly scholar feel so drawn to a deeply unhygienic and occasionally pestilential city?
The answer is that London alone had the power to relieve the melancholy, or “horrible hypochondria,” described by Boswell, which constantly threatened to overwhelm Johnson with “dejection, gloom, and despair.” Johnson’s 1753 essay “On the Benefits of Human Society” for The Adventurer reveals what he loved about the city. Like Socrates in Athens, the person who “walks the streets of London . . . beholds a thousand shops crowded with goods of which he can scarce tell the use, and which, therefore, he is apt to consider of no value.” Yet “not only by these popular and modish trifles, but by a thousand unheeded and evanescent kinds of business, are the multitudes of this city preserved from idleness, and consequently from want.” Johnson was a generous man, but he had also received generosity in times of need—on first arriving in London, he had lived hand to mouth, too poor to afford even the meanest lodgings—and the help was not just pecuniary but also consisted of companionship and love. “To receive and to communicate assistance constitutes the happiness of human life,” he concludes. “Man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society.” Only in London was the company he needed to ward off his demons possible, as well as the division of labor that enabled him to shine in conversation more brightly than any of his contemporaries.
Johnson reflected on the counterarguments in one of his best long poems, “London” (1738). Loosely based on Juvenal’s Third Satire, the poem contrasts the simple rustic life (here variously located in Wales or Scotland) with the city’s decadence. He is fleeing the people as much as the place. Here in London, “the fell attorney prowls for prey,” and “here a female atheist talks you dead.” But the exorbitant cost of living in London is also a factor. As our protagonist Thales awaits the Thames ferry at Greenwich, where Johnson then lived, he urges the narrator to “stretch thy prospects o’er the smiling land, / For less than rent the dungeons of the Strand.”
Another example of Johnson’s awareness that London was both irresistible and dangerous comes in a 1774 letter to his biographer. Boswell, then living in Edinburgh, had asked Johnson’s advice about whether he should come to spend Easter in London, despite the objections of his wife and being short of money. Without dwelling on Boswell’s dissolute behavior on his visits to the capital, the great man enjoined his disciple to stay away: “That you should delight to come once a year to the fountain of intelligence and pleasure is very natural; but both information and pleasure must be regulated by propriety.” He warned that “you will find no pleasure here which can deserve . . . that you should condemn yourself and your lady to penurious frugality for the rest of the year.” Knowing that Boswell would not dream of bringing his wife with him to London, he added: “She permitted you to ramble last year, you must permit her now to keep you at home.”
All these temptations still exist, of course, and Johnson’s strictures against dissipation still apply, even if a modern rake’s progress is more likely to end in drug-induced psychosis than in the horrors of tertiary syphilis.
For those capable of avoiding the excesses of the underworld, the pleasures of society are today more technologically portable and perhaps less intellectually concentrated in London. One old friend, born and bred in London and a paragon of progressive ideas, has swapped her modernist new-build in the hipster paradise that is now the old East End for what was once a bishop’s palace in northern England. She justifies exchanging an idyllic eco-home for a drafty, decayed, medieval-baroque pile as a restoration project. But what is really going on here? After all, London is still blessed with an incomparable ensemble of buildings and open spaces, which, combined with a uniquely British talent for pomp and circumstance, made it the perfect backdrop for the late Queen’s state funeral—surely one of the most moving spectacles in history. What makes a Londoner willingly renounce the sights, sounds, and smells of one of the world’s favorite cities?
Perhaps my friend’s experience during the pandemic was similar to mine. For the few months during the first Covid lockdown, when leaving London was illegal, my desire to do so became overwhelming. It wasn’t that I was tired of London but that being confined there induced claustrophobia. When my wife and I drove to her mother’s funeral—only six close relatives were legally allowed to attend—the country had never seemed so beautiful, or more out of reach.
Once the escape routes reopened, I expected the allure of rusticity to pall. To my surprise, it has not. Three years on, I still think about moving out of London. A favorite pastime has become fantasizing about acquiring ever more eccentric houses, my imagination fed by the addictive online property app Rightmove. At a click, I can contemplate thousands of potential homes—here, for example, is an ancient, converted windmill, with a round tower recalling Michel de Montaigne’s famous Château in Périgord, the book-lined room where he wrote his Essays. Every detail must be scrutinized on the listing: not merely the price and square footage, the photographs, and, if available, video tour, but floor plans and maps, street views, transport links, and every other aspect of the location. How long has this real estate been on the market, and has the price been reduced? How much did it sell for last time? The questions are endless, the answers often incomplete—but the speculation is gratifying.
Whenever I contemplate what moving out to live “in the sticks” would really mean, however, my reaction is less enthusiastic. For me, to be cut off from the capital would mean cultural decapitation. So, no: I am not tired of London. Still less am I tired of life. Samuel Johnson declared: “Fleet Street has a very animated appearance; but I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross.” He was right. My favorite church, my favorite bookstores, and my club are all in the vicinity of Charing Cross Road. I can probably find other churches; I can take my library with me; and I can make new friends—but how I should miss the London originals! The coronation of King Charles in May will once again remind us of why, two millennia after the Romans founded this ancient city, it remains one of the wonders of the world. The Elizabethan entrepôt where Shakespeare was first performed, Hogarth’s gallery of gin-soaked Georgian rogues, the Victorian underworld that Dickens immortalized, the bastion of freedom whence Churchill hurled defiance at the Nazis: it is all still here, still evolving, an urban horizon of infinite promise.
Yet something about London has changed, and not for the better. It cannot just be the economic woes, worsened by inflation, that sap the city’s energy. It cannot just be the particulates and gases from congested roads that pollute the air. It cannot just be the high-rise buildings and shopping malls that have turned parts of the city into a shabby simulacrum of New York—only with bad modern architecture obscuring the grand old streets that give London its character. No, the problem goes deeper: this city no longer feels like my home. London is tired of me.
To understand why, I think of a grim ordeal that took place long before I was born. The terrible Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s great cities—Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Odessa, and the rest—is a reminder of the first time that a city was subjected to indiscriminate onslaught by missiles. In 1944–45, London was attacked by thousands of Nazi V-1s and V-2s—the jet-propelled flying bombs, also known as “buzz bombs” or “Doodlebugs,” and the much larger V-2 rockets. These early missiles (the “V” stood for Vergeltungswaffen, or “reprisal weapons”) were designed to undermine morale. In this, they had considerable success, partly because the city felt defenseless: fighters could intercept the V-1s, but the supersonic V-2s flew too high and too fast to be shot down. At the height of the campaign, these missiles were damaging 20,000 houses a day. The only solution was to destroy the launch sites in Germany and occupied Europe. Over the nine months before the last of these bases fell in March 1945, the V-1s and V-2s killed nearly 9,000 and wounded more than 23,000 people in London alone.
While this Nazi bombardment was taking place—the second that London had endured in that war, following the Blitz in 1940–41—a young BBC broadcaster named Hubert Gregg came up with a song to boost morale in the embattled metropolis. It took him just 20 minutes to compose “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner,” but the song was an instant hit, and would be sung by many famous Cockney crooners of the era, from Arthur Askey to Davy Jones. The lyrics express a defiant pride in a “London town” that suddenly seemed vulnerable: “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner / That I love London so. . . . When I’m away from London / I can’t help thinking of some of my favourite places / Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden / Changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace / And late at night, the fog that settles softly over / London Bridge.”
It is this sentimental, irreverent, cheeky chappie’s London that the pursuit of a cooler, woker, hipper cosmopolis has somehow mislaid. In the terms popularized by writer David Goodhart, a city of Somewheres has been supplanted by a city of Anywheres. This is not a question of linguistic, religious, or ethnic origins: Londoners are more diverse even than New Yorkers. But putting down roots here is not for everyone—after Brexit, there was an exodus of Europeans to the Continent. Yet those who think of London not as interchangeable with other global cities but as their permanent home are ever-thinner on the ground. A London without Londoners would not be London but a mere geographical expression.
And yet, and yet . . . I cannot bear to let go of the cityscape that has been my birthplace, my workplace, and my home for most of my six and a half decades. It has been my children’s and my grandchildren’s birthplace, too, even though the rising cost and declining quality of life here have driven some of them to settle elsewhere. For all the city’s seeming indifference to the people who lend the place its identity, it needs us more than we need it. If London is tired of me, of us—perhaps it is London, not us, that is tired of life?
Top Photo: “When a man is tired of London,” Samuel Johnson observed, “he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” (NIDAY PICTURE LIBRARY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)