It is estimated that 700,000 people have left London since the pandemic began, that is enormous for a population of nearly 9 million but this is nothing we have not experienced before. Wild dramatization of a city on its knees does sell newspapers and certainly sends shockwaves across middle England but that is the world we live in, for now.
Since the beginning of time has London experienced numerous wipe-outs, from the ransacking of Roman ‘Londinium’ by the Celtic Queen Boudica in AD 63 to the Great fire of London of 1666, a population exodus, without the need for census has most likely occurred. Even with the luxury of a census we have seen post-war London experience 3 decades of population implosion circa 1960 onwards. This was an era where the British Empire was on the slippery slope and more practically suburbia was booming with built-from-scratch new towns; almost ironic by present day standards where middle England, for the most part, is satirised and seen as mere hum to London’s drum.
What I will say is that “the city” is not dead — however, I do agree the multitude of options, be it working from home or freelancing from a Ecuadorean beach has certainly reduced the half-life of London’s magnetism. The financial services gold rush has evidently began to stagnate with banks such as JP Morgan seeking to move 400 jobs to Paris for want of a better example. The premier league of aspiration now points online — those with a technical advantage now hold the master key to our future.
For the first time in 2000 years, I have begun to ponder the possibility that London has set sail on a laggard decline from its previous primacy but as Dr Johnson exclaimed, alas have many others since then, in quirky pubs and coffee shops across London; it is crucial we understand that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This arguably matters more in 2021 than it did in 1777 when Johnson chirped his literary tune.
This is not just some old trope saying you have nothing left to add in the conversation, but it is quite true of cities overall.
Londoners are rightly tired, if not absolutely shattered like the rest of us. Covid-19, skyrocketing rents and rampant crime has smudged the shine on the cities crown. Let us not forget Brexit too, now a distant but equally anxiety inducing strain on the city. Friends of mine have described London as politically tense and increasingly unclean at the moment— not uncommon for anybody living in any major city across the planet, at any moment in human history.
Whether you live in Mumbai or Chicago, somebody, somewhere has a bone to pick with their residence. As self-proclaimed historians we are often a little detached from the present and in all fairness, cannot always be as empathetic as we aspire to be, but remember, we are alive and until our last breath — we can act, at the very least we can make progress.
My message to those following the exodus from London or those feeling confined, to some wacky recreation of Orwell’s Animal Farm — is clear, London is not falling.
Politicians will come and go; the housing bubble will eventually burst, and the city will rid its pores of the crime and grime.
Hopefully not grime as a genre, that should stay but nevertheless London will have to reinvent itself as a global tech Mecca because that wave is here until the next eternity. Whilst the insurance brokers and financiers may perish, so will covid and all the misery that came as part of the package. A future though, is guaranteed and London will once again rise like a phoenix from the ashes, this time, fingers crossed, with a little less attention to its rose tinted nostalgia.