“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.”
James Boswell, in his famous biography of Samuel Johnson, thus reveals the great man’s verdict on the likelihood of ever leaving the metropolis.
Published in 1791, “The Life of Samuel Johnson” is often quoted, as an example of the everlasting vitality of London life. And yet, sometimes I wonder if I am falling into the trap Johnson referred to.
After many years serving this city, I frequently feel tired. Despite its many cultural and social delights, the shine seems to have vanished from the urban scene.
Activities which used to excite me, no longer do so. Causes which I have spent myself in, seem to have vanished into dust.
I experience reveries of moving, to country or coastal sites, as Thomas Hardy put it, “Far from the madding crowd”.
Among the younger population, many are considering leaving London, with its expensive property prices and rents.
This will have a destructive effect on the arts and creative industries, whose pioneers need cheap accommodation, studios, offices and workshops to experiment freely with their skills.
As the creeping tide of super-gentrification sweeps across the inner-city, the multi-cultural vibe and creative edge get replaced with complacent neo-bourgeois colonisers.
This urban revanchism, as Neil Smith called it in the 1990s, kills the spiritual and cultural lifeblood of neighbourhoods which incubate and nurture innovation and inspiration.
In my case, however, Johnson’s quip is more relevant, as my feelings arise from a late-in-life flowering of disillusionment and disappointment.
Perhaps I am indeed tired of life, as I am becoming tired of this city.
I went last year to see a production of Hector Berlioz’s opera, “The Damnation of Faust”. The eponymous Faust suffers, what we might call today, a mid-life crisis.
His world-weariness leads to him having an affair, and ultimately to hell itself. In this decline, Faust is tempted by the demon, Mephistopheles,
Played by the performer as a demented Michel Foucault, on the night I saw it. His manic laugh and shriek of triumph portrays the gleeful joy of darkness as another human falls to his doom.
The solution? How to recover the pleasure and positivity that characterise youth while one fast approaches old age?
We make the mistake, as we age, that what we do must issue in something concrete, tangible, and successful.
As young adults, however, we just tried things, for the fun, the enjoyment, just to see what would happen. There was no necessary sense of direction or achievement.
Without expectation of recognition, we were free, to experiment, to take risks, to get things wrong. This is the pure joy which rests in ignorant innocence.
As the elder forerunners, we can nevertheless encourage, elevate and promote the next generation, drawing attention away from ourselves to those who are coming next, to their creations.