Samuel Johnson didn’t just give the English language its first dictionary – he also bestowed upon it a powerful defence of living in London: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
It’s a pithy quote with some internal symmetry, so it feels true. Plus, he was an erudite man of letters, so even when delivered by a dumb friend or a tea towel, these words seem authoritative. But Johnson's quote is bullshit; he is wrong, dead (and) wrong. The more appropriate (and truthful) quote is “When a man is tired of London, he is tired.” Full stop.
I mean no disrespect: London is a great city. Music, literature, comedy, economics, politics, it's always had a protagonist's role – and nobody will ever take that away. But it’s kind of a terrible place to live. Unless you like being tired.
The three-year grind
I know because I spent three years there. And the day-to-day life – crowded, expensive, overlong commutes, social schedules that rarely mesh, lovely humans who adopt thousand-yard stares on the public street – well, I just didn’t enjoy living there nearly as much as I thought I would. Or nearly as much as I thought I did.
Because while living in London I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else – as a Canadian raised in a small Canadian town, every day felt WONDERFUL! Like I was part of an evolving history, an atom moving through – and comprising – the epicentre of a very important element.
This is such a great city, I would tell myself each morning as I rode various forms of transportation across its sprawl, jostling with thousands of other anonymous inhabitants. And again each evening I would marvel at my good fortune, as I made that journey in reverse, smushed up against thousands of other similarly deluded and repressed commuters, before going to bed exhausted at the end of the day.
Living in London was a euphemism; I was surviving, and little more. Happiness was a carrot dangled in front of my face. There always seemed to be the promise of greater things: career prospects, interesting events, cool parties and film retrospectives, hot restaurants, or bespoke artisanal something-or-others, cozy pubs, friends of friends that I had to meet, all of which shimmered like the mirages they were. Each playing a part in creating the idea of a massively fulfilling existence. An idea that never became a reality.
You can’t fire me – I quit
When the curtain closed on my time in London, due to a redundancy for me and a relocation opportunity for my wife in Amsterdam, I was devastated. It's not fair: London is great, I protested. Ultimately, though, I was faced with a choice: resent her success and keep championing the nebulous wonders of London, or accept our circumstances. I chose acceptance. I decided – out of necessity – to be done with London.
But flipping that switch turned out to be much easier than I thought. Once I did it, I realised that being upbeat about leaving London wasn’t just something I had to tell myself as a consolation for being uprooted. It was true: leaving London was a good thing.
Packing in all that commuting and hustle and struggle for a simpler and mellower life in another global cosmopolitan capital – one that just happens to also be liberal, bike-friendly and picturesque – well, it did start to seem genuinely attractive. And while there were many highlights of living in London, the lustre had faded. And not just because I was tired of London, because I was tired. Straight-up exhausted.
All that hustling through the city, trying to coordinate schedules with people who have a thousand options that all stack up poorly on the effort scale against staying in, or trying to convince a friend living in Hamster Green to come to your show in Scrawnley Heath. Or to convince yourself to go for a drink with an ex-colleague in East Baldworth.
Plans fall through, because it’s difficult for everyone to follow through on a commitment to go anywhere. London is exhausting; I honestly don’t know how Samuel Johnson found the space and time to just chill out and write a dictionary.
It's been three years since we left London. Three years of living in Amsterdam, and though there are difficulties, things are generally amazing. I ride a bike everywhere (without needing to avoid double-decker buses), my career is in a better place, my wife and I bought a home, the air quality is good. There are lots of great comedy shows, opportunities to perform, watch direct, write, teach, collaborate – and generally all within a fifteen minute cycle from home. My life has found a balance I could never strike in London.
Of course, London is not without its charms
Despite what impression you may have formed after reading the above: I still love London. Or, more accurately: I can now love London again.
Part of the process of leaving was adopting a “fuck you London, I never loved you anyway” attitude, to help ease the transition. But, with some space between us and a couple of return visits behind me, I can now look back with fondness.
It took a little bit of distance, and some sustained rest, but I’m now actually looking forward to my next opportunity to be in London – for a short visit. In small doses, London is wonderful again.
So maybe Johnson and I don’t really disagree; maybe being tired of London does mean you’re tired of life. I just found that the life I was tired of was the one I lived in London. And now finally – after years of living in a state of exhaustion – I’m no longer tired of London.