It’s easy to feel poor in decadent London

I took a short visit to a foreign country last night. No passport needed; that country was the city-state once known as London. It was time for a piece of gratuitous decadence, an Ermine trip to visit the heart of the Imperium, to go see Philip Glass’s Akenhaten at the Coliseum. I fear the Ermine lacks culture, so I enjoyed this as music and performance art, with no idea of the plot 😉 Mrs Ermine however is of more refined tastes, and actually understands WTF is going on, but so be it, it was still a fine experience for my unsophisticated fur. I’ve seen a Mozart opera there once before when I used to live in London and recalled the venue as being microscopic, and it still is. I was used to listening to music in places like the RAH and the RFH. I don’t do theatre because I lack the education/refinement to avoid getting bored or losing the ability to suspend disbelief – I never understood why people bother with theatre after movies and television were invented, so I wasn’t familiar with the bijouness of the venues, presumably the limits of human visual acuity constrict size so the punters get to see what’s going on on the stage.

The Coliseum is of course deep in the heart of this foreign country, and we penetrated the defences of the city from the provincial backwaters. I have gotten sick of having to barge out before the final curtain to catch the last train to Ipswich that usually leaves London  at 11:30 pm, so we drove to Colchester, as you get another hour to sort yourself out by the time the very last train leaves at a quarter to one.

Centrepoint. Still there, still not a thing of great beuty
Centrepoint. Still there, still not a thing of great beauty. ” Some things just need time to be loved” errr – no Kathrin Hersel, I think when it comes to revamping Centrepoint the expression you’re looking for is “putting lipstick on a pig”. 1960s concrete prefab. ‘Nuff said


I grew up and went to university in London, and the basic street plan of the inner city hasn’t changed much, but they are always building stuff. We took the Tube to Tottenham Court Road to walk down, and at first when we got out of the station I thought they had demolished Centrepoint, but it was something else nearby that they’ve turned into a two-storey high lump of rubble. Damned if I can remember what it was.

We couldn’t really stick more strap-hanging than absolutely necessary in the commuter underground crowds – this is something that has got a hell of a lot worse than when I commuted to near Broadcasting house – and this was the shortly after 5 rush hour and travelling into the city rather than out of it.

Seven Dials some 10 years ago
Seven Dials some 10 years ago

We drifted down towards Monmouth Street and then via Seven Dials where I used to like browsing the bookshops and oddball shops. The place has been transformed, it seems, in the last few years – it absolutely stinks of money, everything has been turned into a bewildering array of restaurants catering to every niche taste, in minimalist glitzy bright lights and whatnot. I even got to see people queuing to get into a restaurant, since when has that been a thing? We had time to kill to wandered towards Leicester square and had a couple of drinks in the Bear and Staff, which bent a twenty pound note well out of shape. Having said that, at least they kept the beer decently, some of those pricey pubs used to serve a pretty ropey pint because they knew they could get away with it. And of course the people looked beautiful and young, even in the pub. Then it was time to wander back to the Coliseum and hoof it up miles of stairs it seemed, way up into the Gods.

After the show we got to see that rough sleeping in London has got up to Thatcher’s first recession standards. The whole thing was a bizarre counterpoint of the eye-watering reek of incredible amounts of money and the fact that you can’t move or do anything in London without spending shitloads of money. Which is fine for tourists, domestic and foreign, because they aren’t doing it all the time. But London seems to be such a great sucking force, a workhouse for the young as the Telegraph put it. But it also sucks money out of them, in housing, in living, you can’t even go for a dump in the city[ref]on further research, this is apparently not the case – more free bogs[/ref] without being shaken down for the privilege, I have no idea how you live in the city without becoming inured to paying far too much for all sorts of things, because raw and garish consumerism is all out there and right in your face. Do people even have kitchens in London these days, you can probably make the business case that the rent you’d pay on the space will get you a year’s worth of nouvelle cuisine, or at least more fried chicken than is good for you?

It’s a different place, this post financial crash London – and it made me feel poor. Not poor as in dossing down in a doorway – while I have slept in the open in London I did it in some 1980s summer, not in early March. But I looked at all the money changing hands and the overpriced this, that and the other, the shocking price you get charged for a cup of coffee[ref]I resisted. I can live with being overcharged for beer, but not coffee, particularly when the coffee has as many calories as beer[/ref], and it was impossible to get away from the fact that this is a place that makes you feel poor if you don’t have at least a million pounds in investible assets. And I don’t.

And yet I saw the dark underbelly of this beating heart of the Imperial centre as the trains started to draw out towards the provinces, because there is a strange onion-ring effect. Once you are past the recently-gentrified Stratford [ref]I knew someone who lived in Stratford in the late ’80s. Their parents flat out refused to let us go to the pub round the corner on the principle it was that rough they may as well call the cops when we stepped out the door in the dark[/ref] you see row upon row of shabby High Streets with rows of dirty chicken shops, fast food joints, betting shops and places that advertise they take Western Union. I’m sure they sent a search party out for a legit way to use Western Union sometime in the late 1980s but they never returned. They may as well call the place a laundromat for money with the strapline ‘ask no questions, tell no lies’. We take Western Union is just not the sign of a good part of the ‘hood.

Now I grew up in south east London, which was the arse end of the universe back in the day because the tube didn’t go there. It’s still the wrong side of the tracks, but in a different way now, I know a couple where he works somewhere in Canary Wharf though they live sarf of the river. I don’t know where the horny-handed sons of toil live – or do Londoners just throw stuff out when it stops working – looking at some of the trash at the end of the day it seems perhaps. One day there will be a company trucking this shit out to the provinces where children will heat up the circuit boards over coal fires to recycle the parts in some part of Britain-that isn’t-London and they will make a mint. Or scavenging gangs coming in on the last in train and leaving on the six am out trains with their rubbish booty. On the other hand it’s good to see that the London Evening Standard is all for the idea of a basic universal income, there’s hope yet.

London Stone to City of London Corporation - I was here before you, and will outlast you. I am Ozymandias to your hubristic soul
London Stone to City of London Corporation – I am the Omphalos of London. I was here before you, and I will be here when you are long gone. I am Ozymandias to your hubristic soul

And there’s even more hope from the paper – perhaps the pimps, oligarchs and spivs will be ejected from the city when the original Omphalos of London is to be restored to its rightful place. Be careful what you wish for, vainglorious City of London Corporation, because London Stone was there before you.

So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish

Inscription, apparently – I’ve heard of the legend though never seen it written[ref]This PDF from the Museum of London has more[/ref].

This new city state has gone rogue, it’s a really weird place, and somebody in London town has got to be eating a serious amount of generic fried chicken to support all those dirty chicken shops. As the train cleared the city limits I felt less impoverished 😉 After all, unlike all those strap-hangers and the beautiful people in the pub, I didn’t have to get up to go to work today. It’s not a million pounds, but it’s worth something, and that something is called Time…

Oh and I was chuffed that people listened/watched the performance entirely with their own eyes, rather than through the screen of a smartphone. Didn’t realise that sort of thing still happened. I didn’t actually see people being shaken down for ambulatory telephonic apparatus, and it’s not like the bulbous thingy at the top of the Coliseum houses an EMP device to fry the works of every smartphone within 100 yards of the building. One day these things will be available, hopefully, but refreshingly no need this time.

There is, of course, the irony of going to the gratuitous decadence of an an opera making the financially independent feel impoverished, but London has become a really, really, strange place since the financial crash. It’s as if the crash never happened, indeed, it feels as if the financial crash was good for London is some bizarre way, though I am sure it sucked for people who worked for Lehman’s and the like. As to whether what’s good for London is good for Londoners, well, that’s a totally different question. The way the Grauniad has been talking about Millennials who nearly all work in London[ref]Earth to Guardian – while your interns may think the M25 is the edge of the world there is a fair amount of territory beyond[/ref] they are hosed, though I observe even now Millennials are earning more in real and relative terms than when I was the equivalent age working in London in 1986. Which has something to do with why I got the hell out. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a hellacious suckout compared to recent times, it looks like you were truly  charmed if you reached 30 in 2007. And, surprisingly, SOL if you are 45 to 49 – you’d have been relatively better being 30 years older, monetarily, though you can take cheer that you are still better off in real terms. But as the London experience shows, being rich isn’t about how much you have, after a certain point is reached which Britain reached long ago. It’s about how much you have relative to other people, and that’s a bear. Because while many of us live like kings of old in absolute terms, doing the ‘I’m king of the castle and better off than everyone else’ is still as hard as it always was.


34 thoughts on “It’s easy to feel poor in decadent London”

  1. “Or scavenging gangs coming in on the last in train and leaving on the six am out trains”
    We have those already, in a way at least. They don’t come in on the last train, but it is usually the 3rd pint after work on a Friday o’clock train. They arrive in Liverpool St Station in small groups and head straight for popular watering holes in the Square Mile and Canary Wharf. We call them the Essex women. They’e quite easy to spot, but no worries if you don’t, so long as you’re wearing pinstripes they will spot you.


  2. We lived and worked in the heart of the Empire in 2008 and it didn’t seem that expensive at all, but we were making reasonable money (~GBP 130,000 between us). We still lived in a tiny GBP180/week studio flat which obviously helped us keep more of our cash.

    We had friends who worked in hospitality though and we struggled to see how they survived on their GBP7/hr incomes. I’m sure the city would have seemed VERY expensive on that sort of coin.


  3. I went to the Coliseum recently and those seats in the Gods are not half hard on the behind.

    I don’t have a million pounds in investable assets and yet London doesn’t make me feel poor. I live pretty quietly though and ignore the consumerist stuff. It is possible (fortunately).


    1. Indeed – and Akenhaten was nearly three hours! Impressive that you can keep your head above the consumerism – I fear that I would probably get sucked in – the siren song of the opulence all around would get under my skin in the end.


  4. When I first visited London in 1981 it was British to the core – exactly as I expected. The last time I was walking around Harrods in 2013 I might as well have been in Dubai.
    That said, LOndon is still one of my favorite places. In 1996 my family went to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket to see Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” – same place where it premiered 100 years earlier. Watching the play I knew that I was doing something world class for once in my life.
    The Science Museum with Watt’s steam engines ain’t half bad either.


    1. 1981 eh – London was so different then! Britain was in the a serious recession ISTR – I was living in a basement bedsit in Knightsbridge just behind Harrods then. I couldn’t even think about looking for digs in that part of town now.


  5. I left the Great Smoke ~ 10 years ago on realising that no matter how much I could make in salary as a middling-sized worker ant, I was going to lose every penny just keeping my head above water. And all that for a very low quality of life for the middle or modest earners, even more brutal on the poor of course …..the disparity in wealth is just so in your face what with the lack of space, that it’s that much harder to ignore.

    I still have to go in every month, but it’s a real relief getting out again & so hard to believe I loved it when I lived there for years while still young. I feel everything you described and a deep unease at the dog-eat-dog mentality; most people have been stripped of their humanity by the constant competition & naked greed.

    Perspective is powerful if you use it though, because from walking around on the streets there wondering if I could still cope with that life, feeling stressed just by everyone else rushing around [like it’s infectious] …..when I am back to my middle-sized town, I better appreciate there the peace, concept of value vs cost and understanding of the power of Enough.


    1. It’s a good place to visit, but as you say, a good place to come home from – if only to reset the calibration on what Enough looks like.

      I loved London when I was in my twenties – well early twenties. But when it came to the first turning inwards in my late 20s, well, I have never, ever in my life felt so lonely and isolated, even though I knew lots of people through work and ex-uni. London is a place for the strong and the confident, but it feels like there is nothing to catch you if you fall there.


  6. One of the (very few) sensible things Jeremy Clarkson once wrote was that you needed a minimum of £250,000 to live a decent life in London. That was a few years ago if I recall, but doesn’t seem far off the mark.

    I am a weekly visitor to the capital, working there then returning home at weekends to North Yorkshire. I consciously try and keep my mentality as that of a visitor though: it would be easy to “go native” and become desensitised to the frankly ridiculous costs of everyday items such as coffees and socialising. My trick is to try and earn “London pounds” and spend “Yorkshire pennies”.

    I watch my colleagues trotting into the office, grasping their morning venti-mocha-skinny- whatevers, with a cinnamon something else in a paper bag, straight past the nice fully-featured kitchen & drinks area next to our desks. “It’s my little morning treat”. “Oh I couldn’t start the day without it” etc. Seguing into the lunchtime run to Pret, or some fancy sushi takeaway, before popping in to M&S for a ready meal to take home.
    Evenings and weekends seem to involve quite a lot of pub-going, restaurants and “going out” at around £200 “for a good night out”.
    They all then talk about how difficult it is to live on the (good, professional services) salary they get.

    It’s not that I condemn their frivolity (although it clearly bemuses me somewhat) or inconsistent choices (“pension – too expensive”), but it serves as a bit of a warning to me that it would be very easy to bit by bit adopt some of their approaches. Nice, but would add a lot of time to the years I still have at the FS coal face; Ermine has taught me that my time is just too precious to waste like that.

    You #can# spend a fortune enjoying yourself in the capital, whether as a resident or as a visitor. There are also plenty of ways in which you can have a fantastic time for very little, with a bit of planning and forethought. The museums are free (though sadly not open out of working hours, so it seems); the views and architecture are fantastic if you walk, run or cycle around the parks, Embankment, Westminster etc; there are tons of cheap deals on theatre tickets (strangely my colleagues can’t be bothered searching).

    I’m sure that, in spite of my protestations, I am gradually being normalised to how much it all costs. As London is not an occasional cultural treat but an everyday work necessity, I guess I need to keep my vigilance high, else I find wasted years earning to support my London spending habits.

    On a final note, I refer your fried chicken observation to Douglas Adams’ “Great Shoe Event Horizon”, where shoe shops proliferated to the expense of all other commerce. I’m torn as to whether fried chicken or coffee will be the cause of collapse of our economy, in that manner!


    1. I wonder if Clarkson meant a decent life and a garage full of sports cars. Or more likely a decent life and a family. I know a lot of contractors who live well in London on half that (house / large apartment, frequent vacations, healthy SIPP) but £250k is in the ballpark for a household.


    2. That must be a remarkable culture clash between week and weekend! The price of freedom will always be eternal vigilance against the insidious creeping lifestyle costs though.

      I think the onion ring effect will mean coffee shops in the center and fried chicken in the periphery. Seriously, as the train tracked out there were high Streets which had three fried chicken shops next to each other as well as the usual fast food joints. There must be pantechnicons trucking reformed chicken into the city every night, somewhere in the hinterland these birds must be produced on a stupendous scale, or do they all come from China?


  7. London – great place to visit but who’d want to live there?
    I took my 70+ mother on a short break there last year, staying near King’s Cross and what I noticed was the total lack of old people on the street. I felt I was the oldest sometimes. Have they all flogged their million plus terraced houses and gone to live somewhere more pleasant and affordable?
    A city for the young, unless you happen to be mega rich.


    1. Indeed -a city for the young, though the costs aren’t kind to them. The exhilaration of the fast pace of life is for them though!

      I see what you mean about the age profile. It’s not quite Logan’s Run, but there are more of the young and beautiful in town!


      1. I was born and brought up in London and lived there until my mid 30s. I have a love/hate relationship with it. It was actually a great place to grow up as a kid in the 70s and 80s. I cannot believe how my parents and my friends’ parents allowed us to roam around on our own all round the city on the buses and tube aged 10! However it was also scary sometimes and I was robbed on a few occasions. It was quite a rough city then it seemed to me. It seems better now although that might just be because I am older.

        I found it more difficult once I started working as I didn’t earn a huge City style salary. I felt like a kid with my nose pressed up against the shop/restaurant window – able to look but not participate. I eventually found that very dispiriting. I worked in other parts of the UK for a couple of years and it was a revelation. People seemed happy, relaxed and polite. I have now bailed out of London and the UK and earn more money in a much easier environment. However I still miss the excitement of London. It feels like you are at the centre of the universe there.


  8. London has a filthy humid climate, is full of rude, anxious people who are dead behind the eyes, and is hard to escape from unless you belong to the helicoptering classes.

    P.S “The museums are … sadly not open out of working hours, so it seems” is a governmental crime against the labouring classes.


  9. I’m moving to London later this year to go and work for £27k p.a. so I hope you’re being excessively negative!


    1. No idea of your other circumstances, but keep expenses under control and you’ll survive. Flatshare or find a private landlord who is less likely to rob you blind with fees and annual rent inflation than an agency. Cook, bike, etc..


    2. London is a fantastic city to be young in – I thoroughly enjoyed my time there until the end as I was approaching 30, because in the end I couldn’t outrun the psychological stages of the first turning outwards and deepening.

      As long as you don’t try and buy a house or want to raise kids while there – that’s a different stage of life and to be honest I think you’d struggle doing that on 27k or even twice that. The key to London to use it for what it’s good at at the right time for you, and to be prepared to change. There again, being flexible and adapting to opportunities is a good motto for life.

      Absolutely agree with Swim – flatshare, and if possible bike to work. I wrote this after dropping out of the middle class lifestyle for a few years, so suddenly seeing how the other 1% live in the middle of theatreland was always going to be a shock.

      I do agree with Ray though – although I’ve never been to Dubai some parts of London have gone rogue with the conspicuous consumption, and that looks particularly odd to me because I knew these areas ten to thirty years ago.

      Good luck – it’s a place of amazing range and contrast!


      1. Thanks both ermine and Swim for your responses. Doesn’t sound so bad after all!

        I’m planning just to live in a room in a house/ possibly flat-share, and am determined to avoid the Tube (not just because of the cost). Although it’s arguably a shame to be forced into sharing accommodation out of economic necessity, I’d actually share by preference anyway. I’ve never lived in my own place and I think I’d feel weird bouncing around on my own.

        As for going out, again maybe it’s economic necessity, but my friends have always been more about going round each others houses/flats than clubbing/pubbing and supermarket alcohol is as cheap as it’s ever been afaik…it’s still possible to get sociably hammered for £5, just not by going out.

        That said, as you alluded to, ermine, it’s a bit of a stage of life thing. If I’m not earning an inflation-adjusted £60k+ by 30, my bet is I’ll have left London…either that or I’ll have to pull an oligarch’s daughter.


      2. That’s a good attitude. Take what opportunities are available and don’t let the city eat you. Best of luck.


  10. I first got there in my late 20’s because it was yet another recession & there were no decent jobs in the rest of the country as usual in the ‘business cycle’, or I would have stayed near my family. I started in Shepard’s Bush which may have looked decrepit even then, but had a wonderfully vibrant market & wildly independent shops like a Turkish bakery, so it was at least interesting in that it was still exotic.

    The rentier atmosphere was already there, but not as blatant as now that disaster capitalism/austerity-chic is the established, automatically-accepted, ideological norm. I lived then in a bedsit over a KFC outlet, so had drunks fighting in the street at 2 am below & the perma-nauseating smell of rancid chicken fat seeping out of cracks in the vent coming out of that particular poverty-food franchise, as well as the related debris scattered around.

    To think that now it has one of the largest emporiums of vulgar, mindlessly consumerist, tat in Europe the form of a mega-shopping centre is incredible to anyone who lived there at the time. It may have looked seedy then, but there was still humanity & character pre-gentrification … had little hole-in-the-wall shops where they could actually repair things & talk one-on-one.

    I hear you on loneliness though, Mr Ermine, because I used to dread the weekend even though I particularly didn’t love my job, because I couldn’t afford to go out; all my money was already gone on rent & bills. It was my first real job in life & paid fk’all because I was in a socially useful role – working at Hammersmith hospital on people who could be poor. Knowing nobody there & not looking wealthy enough for strangers to take an interest in, at the weekend all I had left was often only ~£5 to get hammered on a jug of generic piss lager to forget my plethora of worries. Utopia it was not.

    I couldn’t even have imagined at the time though that that situation would soon be enviable by the next generation of cannon-fodder betrayed by the system – ”What, you had a whole dive to yourself – Luxury !!!!!” I feel so, so sorry for the young now who don’t have generous & rich parents, They have absolutely no chance; it gets more rigged against them with every day.


  11. I still love London for its parks, museums, history, Wren churches, West End shows, etc. but I now realize that your experience there is no more typically UK than a visit to Toronto is typical of Canada.
    With my cruise habit I have been able to spend time in Dover, Harwich, Liverpool, Glasgow/Greenoch, Edinburgh, and the lovely Inverness. As well we got out of London on day trips to Bath, Salisbury, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Cotswalds, Oxford, Cambridge, and Canterbury. So I have broadened my horizons a bit. Lots more to see and learn though.


  12. “two-storey high lump of rubble”
    For your readers who might not realise/remember, it was (central) London’s last gig venue, the Astoria.

    I think the main issue I have with people living in London, is that unlike you, they are not shocked by the cost, they just pay up. They should be shocked enough to be on the streets protesting, not on the streets eating mongolian street food or the like.

    Oh, as for the chicken shops. That’s wot you send ya kids to school with, innit?


  13. –> “I’m sure they sent a search party out for a legit way to use Western Union sometime in the late 1980s but they never returned”.

    Glad I’m not the only one that is surprised by the abundance of WU 😉

    I turned a job down to work as a tax accountant for one of the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms in the city not long after university, to work in Salisbury instead. The response of “do you know who we are” and “London is bigger than Salisbury” confirmed my choice as the right one, for me.

    Visiting London for the weekend is ace, but it’s hecticness would have crushed me if I worked there

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Now, now, people – some quite extreme statements in the comments here, wouldn’t you say? 😉 Time for a bit of balance.

    I moved to London when I was 21 – it was big and scary but I had some family in the far outer suburbs and my work colleagues (all Londoners) were welcoming and kind, so I managed. The cost of living was high, and they didn’t make sandwiches the right way in cafes, but it was exciting and the broad horizons seemed to suit me.

    Fast forward nearly 40 years and somewhere along the way I have become a Londoner. This is ‘my town’, and I know it pretty well. But still, after all this time, it has the ability to surprise and delight me. It is chock full of interesting people, beautiful buildings and wonderful places. We love going to the theatre (deals!) and nothing, anywhere, touches West End theatre in my opinion.

    There’s a shed load of free music, art, sports, leisure and academic stuff if you look for it, and nobody need go bored for lack of money. It’s teeming with ideas and you can do your own thing without anyone batting an eyelid.

    Housing costs here are mental, that’s true. The Mr and I could not afford our house if we had to buy it now. It’s particularly hard for the young, but not necessarily impossible. My Daughter and s-i-l are currently in the process of trading up from their tiny one-bedroomed flat in pricey NW London to a house in a much cheaper area in E London.

    The Mr is older than I am, and we have been talking for some time about where we might move when we get ‘old’. We’ve thought about lots of places, UK and abroad, and we’re well travelled. But we reckon that, in the end, nothing (for us) will ever top London in terms of quality of life.

    it’s a very big city, and not everyone likes big cities. You have to take the (sometimes very) rough with the smooth. But every place you might live has pluses and minuses, and you have to choose your poison.

    @ Sarah – of course there are old people on the streets here! Elderly Londoners tend to be pretty tenacious, I can tell you. But what you see in central London tends to include lots of visitors, who are probably skewed towards the younger end of the spectrum.

    @freedomsoul – you’ll probably have a really good time and if by some chance you don’t, you’ll have had the experience. Go for it.

    So, in conclusion (as they say) I agree with Samuel Johnson on the topic of London. 🙂



    1. You are right when you say “nothing will ever top London in terms of quality of life.”. I love living here, even though I despise some of the changes, specifically the cost of property. However, there is so much going on. Twice a month I meet up with strangers to discuss topics related to my work. But I could just as easily do the same with a foreign language, or lean a new skill. I could find something to do for free each evening many times over.

      When I visit my family outside London I struggle to find the point of their lives. They are not experiencing anything other than discussing last night’s TV whilst on the golf course. Life is here in abundance in London. That is why it’s hectic.


  15. I love (perhaps not the right word) for all those awful things, too. I know it annoys everyone outside of London, but when I’m somewhere else it feels like I’m out in the foyer buying popcorn during the interval.

    And I love the countryside and miss it five times a day. So I am not saying this is a healthy. But it is what it is.

    We should have had our pint! One day… 🙂


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