A love letter to London, the best city in the world

Some idiots yesterday said it was Vienna

People love to hate on London.

At the merest provocation, voluble commentators flex hands and rude adjectives with glee. It’s so expensive, they crow; it’s nasty and exclusive. It’s dirty, and everyone’s unfriendly. The Tube’s inefficient, and the streets are full of criminals. There’s no space. Everyone is miserable. It swills with foreign (dirty) money.

The latest excuse is the news that London did not make a list of the world’s top 35 cities. In the 18th Mercer Quality of Life study, which ranks 230 of the world’s cities, London was placed in a relatively poor 39th. Metrics include social and economic conditions, health, education, housing and environment.

The winner? Vienna. The Guardian, which especially despises London, interviewed Helena Hartlauer, a Viennese woman who lives in a “100sq metre turn-of-the-century apartment about 20 minutes’ walk into the city centre” for £625 a month. “An equivalent apartment in London would cost upwards of £2,000,” the Guardian observed, correctly. Hartlauer also praised Vienna’s underground network, which is cheap and runs 24 hours at weekends, and comments that the city feels “safe”. Others invoked Vienna’s healthy GDP.

Certainly, if you play by metrics, London loses out; it’s flip and childish to claim that we’d “rather” have high rents, or high crime, or filthy streets. But if you squint between the lines of this passionless survey, that largely rewarded financial centres (Zurich and Frankfurt make the top 10) and efficiency (Bern, Hamburg, Geneva – all in the top 20), you get a sense of what’s really important in a city.

Give me the frantic, antic carnival of London over the bland utilitarianism of mittel Europe any day. Cities are a romantic idea: huge numbers of people co-existing clumsily, houses growing higgledy-piggledy, everyone reacting to the unpredictable. You shouldn’t really be able to organise something that big: efficiency is anathema to the spirit of a city. You don’t move to London because you’re really excited about the bus timetable.

London is adventurous: barreling through Brixton shouting at the top of your voice because you just sort of feel like it, flicking fags off rooftops in Peckham, dancing in really slimy clubs in Dalston and Deptford. London Fields in the summer when everyone is brazenly off their tits on balloons; watching people turn salmon in the sunshine. Those big barbecues that sort of turn into house parties; getting an Uber over the river and getting the driver to put on Pure Shores with the windows open because obviously they’ve delayed the introduction of the night Tube so we’ll have to get cabs forever. And wouldn’t you rather be in an Uber than on one of Hartlauer’s underground trains?

We work long hours, then we go out on the smash and end up in a Kingsland Road kebab shop sassing the girls in front in the queue. We go to that Tesco opposite Superstore and take out all our money so we can play somewhere new because have you noticed that tonight everyone in east London is really fit and you think you might stay out?  On the other hand, the clean streets of these imperial capitals and banking zones are sterile and sexless; crime is low, but so is libido. Being polished isn’t sexy – no one picks the stuck-up girl over the one who gets stuck in. You wouldn’t get Austrians flirting clumsily on the nightbus.

Civic pride is not emotive – you don’t feel proud of your city because it’s locking up criminals. You feel proud of your city because it’s angry and creative and wild and electric and you want to be all those things too. There’s glamour in imperfection. Vienna feels antique in its civility – brash London chases the new and while you roll your eyes (“peak London,” you scoff) and realise, actually, you like its silly untrammelled energy.

London doesn’t even need this love letter – it’s used to the tedious criticism and it doesn’t scar easily. But it was so easy to write. Can you say the same about Vienna? The Austrian ambassador tried:

“Our big USP is our geographic location. The fall of the Berlin Wall helped define Vienna as the hub for companies wanting to do business in central Europe.”

If that’s the criteria for “best city in the world”, I’d rather London wasn’t on the list.

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