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Too cool for London

As the world heads for Soho, the seriously hip are leaving in droves, says Katie Sampson
The latest guided tour from the London Tourist Board has proved a runaway success. Launched last October, the "trendy trip" is a whistlestop tour of cool London, taking in such hotspots as Camden Lock and winding up at the Subterrania club in Notting Hill. The trip's success reflects the fact that nearly two- thirds of short-haul London tourists are under 35, a marked increase since the "Cool Britannia" marketing ploy began.

No wonder many Londoners are beginning to feel a bit dazed and confused about their true identities, as the frenzied hype which surrounds their city places them as exhibits within a living museum. "The repackaging of London is a bit of a double-edged sword," says Jefferson Hack, editor of style magazine Dazed And Confused, identified by the foreign press as the apex of cool London. "Because if the whole world says that you are cool, it feels like it's over."

Has the "London experience" - which has always been admired for its endless capacity to reinvent itself and defy definitions - been preserved in formaldehyde like a Damien Hirst at the "ultra cool" (according to Vanity Fair) Quo Vadis? Will American tourists soon pay to stand next to a "genuine London raver", as they still do with punks?

It is exactly this aggressive hyping and labelling of London that is beginning to drive some of the original, creative Londoners away. "When an experience becomes conceptualised it is time to move on," says journalist and writer Alix Sharkey, who, until he recently took refuge in Paris, dedicated more than 16 years to writing about the London scene. "Once the potential is pointed out to the mainstream, it becomes another mythology while, in reality, Londoners remain part of a lost, insular and isolated island which becomes insufferable," he laments.

Determined not to become jaded, singer, songwriter, producer and hip- hop musician John Carruthers fled to France last week, in the belief that London no longer holds the creative promise that Paris now offers. "I used to feel that London was somewhere very special, but that feeling's gone. So much in London seems to be reduced to hype, the national stars of the moment seem to be Swampy and a page three girl, whereas once they might have been Germaine Greer and Ken Livingstone. Everything in London seems to need a `theme', the newspaper stand at Piccadilly is rumoured to be selling for half a million and people are concerned with taking rather than giving, in the hope that London will rub off on them."

This "rub-off" factor has led to a growing band of international nomads eschewing the competition of their home town in favour of the cult status they achieve when working abroad. London hype, the canny have discovered, is a very exportable mythology. Artist Alexandra Small has been struck by the attention she has been given as a muralist hailing from London. "I'm half-Canadian but I've learnt to sell myself as a Londoner because it gives my work an additional allure and I get more respect." Indeed, people feel complimented by the thought that a Londoner should choose to be with them rather than in their happening home town.

Like Small, DJ and producer Justin Berkmann keeps a base in London, while choosing to work in Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, which may seem an odd choice for a man who co-founded the Ministry of Sound. "My personality has changed. I've picked up different cultures and become free to select the best elements. I'm now truly European," he says proudly, describing how genuinely excited people on the Continent still are by the music revolution. "They have none of your self-important, `entertain me', London attitude because they put themselves heart and soul into the music."

Disparagingly referring to the Ministry as "the McDonald's of Sound", he begins a tirade against the commercialisation of the club scene. "The problem with capitalism is that it bleeds good ideas until you get bad ideas, as things become branded and sealed. Individuality is lost and the mystique dies. London has become a huge mall, and the bohemian vibe is being destroyed. Beware, just look what the English did to Ibiza."

The technological revolution has allowed another breed of Londoner to pitch up camp outside of London without being made to feel like an out- of-touch yokel. Richard Griffiths left London five months ago to set up home in the middle of a zoo in the countryside, but this move has not interfered with his business marketing mixers for DJs. "It's an advantage to be here. I can bring clients down here and give them one hell of a time."

Griffiths claims that a lot of the major players in the music industry are leaving London, whereas a few years ago it would have been professional suicide. "I used to have to club it every night to conduct business, whereas now I can live in an incredible setting in the peace and quiet, going to the coolest and trendiest parties in amazing settings with real people and keep London as a novelty."

Another effect of the hype is that some professionals, such as actress and Brighton resident Joanne Good, are starting to feel pressurised into returning to London to be at the "hub". Having discovered that her preferred London locations were out of reach of her budget, Good checked out East London because it was said to have street cred. She took one look at the Mile End Road, without a tree in sight, and hot-footed it back to Brighton. "It may be trendy, but living in London since it's been `discovered' is my idea of hell. I find it hard to trust anyone in London. No-one seems genuine anymore, it's like everyone has to have an image." Brighton used to be proud of being referred to as London by the Sea, she says, but it's now an association its proud inhabitants are trying to get away from.