The London friend

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The Independent Culture
I called round last week to the house of a journalist friend of mine who was stacking the coffee table with copies of the TLS, Spectator and Wales's version of Granta. I knew at once what was going on. It wasn't a parent or employer coming to cal l, it wasn't a child development officer or former boyfriend. Kit was about to be visited by A London Friend.

We all have them, those of us who live in the provinces, and they have us, their Friends Who Moved Out, or who never even started off in London. And we seem to be two separate tribes.

I have two distinct kinds of friends who live in London - those with children and those without. It is only those without who really disturb us. London friends with children have no mystique about them. They are just like the rest of us but even more tired.

It is the friends without who are regarded with apprehension. All the great London myths attach to them: untold disposable income, company perks, limitless libido and unblocked career paths. These are the people we started off working with and, because our careers have weaved around the British Isles, we imagine that by dint of staying in one place, they have inched relentlessly up the ladder of fulfilment to more money, multiple perks and multiple orgasms.

The London Friend goes nightly to art gallery openings, wine bars and operas. He or she sinks a few brandies with Jeremy Paxman when he comes off air and then goes back to an absurdly expensive flat for sex with this week's lover.

Of course, we know it's not true. Some of that may happen to some of my London friends some of the time. But no one with that much money has all that free time and spare energy. However, it could be true. Of course, our friends know it isn't true either.But they do know that if they were up to it, they could.

They also know that, however much I sing the praises of Cardiff as a cultural centre, we are only occasionally invited to private views, the opera is seasonal and Jeremy Paxman works 200 miles away .

So, what it really comes down to is not that they do and we don't but that they could and we can't, which is hardly a clash of lifestyles. In fact, as someone who usually spends one day a week working in London, I fit exhibitions in between meetings and check out what's opening on the South Bank. I may well go to more metropolitan events than many of my London friends. Nevertheless, I still catch myself behaving as if they are where it's at and I am where it isn't.

Of course, I don't really believe that my London friends think of me as absurdly out of touch. And I don't suppose that Kit needed to demonstrate that she was up to date with all the metropolitan reading matter.

It's the people from London who are not our friends who feel the need to explain that The Tate is an art gallery. These Londoners turn up quite often in Cardiff. They tell us how lucky we are to live in Cardiff, and we get an insight into their view of provincial life: free of pollution, traffic jams, car theft and street violence. A good place to bring up children. Which is, ironically, just how Cardiff people talk when they move out into the Vale of Glamorgan.

Of course, what worries people like Kit and me is that our London friends might be judging us as these strangers do. We suspect that they cannot see beyond the fields of clover in which we are slowly rusticating. Not that we are immune from taking part in this town and country myth. "They can't be happy," we say to ourselves. "All that money, sex and excitement."

But this defensive posture is better than striking the defiant pose. Some of my Cardiff friends belong to the regional at any cost camp, believing that "London has nothing to offer that Cardiff doesn't do better." This is as absurd as the smug metropolitan query: "But why do you live in Cardiff?"

The belief that sophisticated life goes on only in the capital is the mark of a very unsophisticated country. But the belief that a decent quality of life is possible only outside is naive. I hope I know enough about both worlds not to be fooled by either. But when the children are grown up my wife and I are going to New York . . .

Now that really is where it's at.