Orlando on London

Orlando on London

By Orlando Bird 01/05/13

This week our columnist, Orlando Bird, is jellying his eels and trafalgaring his squares to ask, do you really need to move to London to get ahead...?

Last week a row broke out in the literary world that, unusually, touched on an issue of significance outside the literary world. 

Discussing Granta’s latest list of the top 20 young British novelists, John Freeman, the magazine’s editor, expressed his surprise that a man from Leeds could have made the cut. His intention was to highlight a sort of triumph against the odds, but the effect was to paint the north as a cultural wasteland. As if Alan Bennett’s discovery of the printed word in the 1940s had been a complete anomaly.

But Freeman wasn’t just betraying the attitudes of the literati. For all the talk of how “connected” our world is – whether through EasyJet, through Nokia or through Branjelina's ever-expanding brood – there’s still a prevalent assumption that you can only really make it if you’re in London.

I’ve bought into this assumption myself. Towards the end of last year I decided that commuting to the capital from Cornwall was probably not the most efficient route to media stardom. Unless, like Michael Portillo, I could find a way of getting paid enormous sums of money to grin out of a train window on national television, I’d have to leave the seaside idyll of my childhood (and, latterly, the harrowing, post-university months of unemployment).

So for the last few months I’ve been London-based. But has it paid off?

Well, I’m not a bad apprentice Londoner – though I still have some way to go. I’ve learnt to address all strangers as if they’ve just broken into my house and emptied my treasured tin of Monmouth coffee onto the carpet. At the same time, I continue to raise a telltale provincial eyebrow when a blind octogenarian is upended and trampled in the rush for a seat on the Northern Line. 

The main problem is accommodation. My various jobs – writing, editing and anything else you’d like to pay me for – are covering basic living costs. They will even occasionally allow me to sit in Pret a Manger, happy in the knowledge that I could buy something if I wasn’t so brilliantly frugal. But renting a place of my own isn’t an option yet, so I’m reliant on the generosity, tolerance or pity of friends and family.

Some of the time I live with my grandfather, in the house he was able to buy in the 1960s for roughly the same price as an artisan brioche today. Some of the time I occupy the sofas, floors and bathtubs of contemporaries who’ve made more responsible career choices than me. And at the weekends I stay at my girlfriend’s house, where we’re both reliant on the generosity, tolerance or pity of her mother. 

In short, it’s a rather fractured, nomadic existence, without the Mr-Tambourine-Man glamour once associated with a fractured, nomadic existence. But I realise, too, that I’ve been extremely lucky – many people don’t even have this option.

And I’m in no doubt that living here can give you an advantage. There have been several occasions when I’ve been pestering people for work and a London address has made the difference between a “tell us a bit more” and a “disappear now or we’ll have you sectioned”. But this insularity – surprising in such a diverse city – is something that should be condemned rather than exploited by hypocrites like me. 

Also, while I enjoy being in London, it’s not for everyone. The idea that anyone who wants to write or paint or make films must want to live in the city is no more realistic than the idea that country-dwellers spend all their time “drinking cider and discussing butter,” (to quote Withnail and I, in which urban life and rural life are equally grim).

I don’t want to be here all my life. Several decades down the line, I’d rather not have to choose between being stampeded on the Tube or disappearing into oblivion when I relocate to – well, maybe not somewhere as far away as Yorkshire.


More Orlando: 

... on manners

... on photographing gigs


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