London is cramped, crowded, inconvenient, expensive and — relentlessly ugly. The housing is substandard and the food plain awful. (I don’t mean English food — because there is none to be had, everything downtown being Lebanese, Indian, sushi, Italian and other — I mean the ingredients: fruit juice tastes like trash-bag extract, apples like wax, tea like cardboard juice. Fancy breads — — “potato sour-dough”, say — are not much different — except for the price-tag — from the colorless industrial presliced sponge a la Americana. You, undeveloped countries where food is still produced the traditional way, look out: unless you be damned vigilant, this — the industrially produced push-marketed pulp — is your gastronomic future, too: you may love your food but Big Industry pushes theirs harder).
London has gone American, too: shirts are unfitted, tea all in tea-bags, coffee mugs big enough to feed cows.
In short, standard of living is surprisingly low and — to an outsider like myself — just amazingly not worth the money. This explains the wild enthusiasm of English retires for not-so-great places abroad: even half-arse places — like Chiang Mai, say — beat London hands down for quality of life because it is not hard to do. Yet, foreigners keep coming. London is a magnet for tourists and immigrants alike: English is a minority language in central London. Why?
I suppose the calculation is economic: the cost of living may well be double Lisbon’s, but incomes are easily triple. A disciplined saver can tuck the difference away and — run. Which some do — to Thailand, Algarve — but not many: the number of really expensive cars in the city stands proof to how many who could easily afford to escape, yet choose to stay in. Why?
The cars offer a part of the explanation: the city elicits lavish spending. High incomes coupled with poor quality of life encourage dissaving — the ersatz pleasure of conspicuous luxury spending serves as a substitute for real joys of life, such as delicious food, peace and quiet, or comfort. Thus money which could have been used to buy oneself an escape, ends up devoured by Lamborhinis and Dom Perignons: most high-income people here, like elsewhere in the modern West, have next to nothing in the bank: the high income supports high current spending and — not much else.
I don’t know highly paid London professionals, but I used to know plenty highly paid Tokyo professionals in the time of its great boom: they all complained about their stressful jobs, about being tired, about the cost of living and their high levels of debt; they all talked about getting out; and none ever did. Partly because they couldn’t — there was no money in the bank. Partly because they didn’t know how to — if London/Tokyo is all you have ever known, how would you even begin to formulate a plan of escape? And partly because of the golden-shackles effect: one hated the job, the bosses, the clients; but one loved the income. All too often, the number of zeroes on one’s paycheck blinds us to the obvious fact that it is not the point.