This week someone turned up in my sitting room, plonked themselves down on my sofa and began cheerily explaining why they “resolutely and completely loathe London”. Considering that the lecture was delivered from the relative comfort of my east London flat, I wasn’t best pleased to receive it – but I wasn’t surprised, either. The last year has vomited up a surprisingly large cohort of my old school friends and extended family members, all eager to set up camp in my conveniently-placed apartment for a couple of days and then disappear back to wherever they came from, leaving nothing but a trail of back-handed compliments about how London is “great, but I wouldn’t want to live here” in their wake.
And now it seems that they might be right. It turns out London really isn’t that special any more - at least according to travel experts Lonely Planet, which recently published its top cities to visit in 2016 and neglected to include our capital city. Manchester, however, has made the cut, rubbing shoulders with Rome, Nashville, Mumbai and Dublin on a list that promises to provide the must-see modern sights for travellers.
“This one-time engine room of the industrial revolution has found a new groove for the 21st century as a dynamo of culture and the arts,” Lonely Planet’s writers said of Manchester in their explanation, going on to refer to it as “the UK’s cultural boomtown”.
It’s undeniable that Manchester really is brilliant for culture: the arts are flourishing, the nights out are legendary and the gay scene is huge. Alternative music is nurtured in the city’s underground venues, which retain an authenticity so many London counterparts have lost. And the best thing about Manchester, in my opinion, is that this rich cultural offering still comes without a bearded anarchist called Sebastian tripping over his soy latte to let you know that, actually, you just pronounced Shostakovich wrong.
Most northerners are still willing to call a spade a spade - which is probably why they don’t offer to charge you £550 to live in a pitched tent in their dining room (“fully furnished” with a wooden chair and a sleeping bag) as per one South London fantasist’s offering on a flatmate-finding website earlier this year.
But then Londoners have to be snobs, because otherwise how could we justify our eye-wateringly high rent prices and the fact that we pay the same for our morning coffees as most northerners spend on their Christmas presents? I say this as a born-and-bred Geordie, who has had to reprogram myself with Londoner doublethink over the eight years I’ve lived in the capital: if I didn’t swallow the idea that London is a magical rainbow unicorn city, then I’d be reduced to a hyperventilating quiver of semi-viscous fluid every time I thought about the percentage of my wage that goes on rent (clue: it’s over 50 per cent.)
Which explains why Lonely Planet’s decision to overlook London for its cheerier northern cousin feels particularly perturbing. After all, if the capital is losing its special snowflake status among the travellers of the world, that must mean it’s becoming less desirable to live in.
Like it or not, the backpacked clan of gap year explorers are a good indication of where in the world is up and coming: they gravitate toward interesting, affordable places where new and exciting developments are taking place. And they take great care to make sure that they pick the right cities, because how else are they going to get the perfect Instagram feed of artsy hang-outs, camera-friendly brunches and hipster gigs that will procure them a benevolently jealous following of new university friends come Freshers’ Week?
Where young travellers go, the money – and the talent – often follows.
One of the reasons I abandoned my beloved North East and migrated south was because of a frustrating lack of job opportunities in my hometown after the recession. After a gruelling year, post-graduation, of rejected applications and dismal prospects (at one point, I went through three panel interviews for a receptionist role before being informed that I’d “just missed the cut”) I moved to London and landed a job almost instantaneously. It wasn’t a particularly good job, or one in the industry I wanted to work, and I did have to live in someone’s airing cupboard while accruing enough for a rental deposit. But it was still a chance at a normal life.
In the darkest days of the recession, it seemed like that normal life wasn’t possible in the north. Now, though, as my pay cheque bleeds away on housing and bills and little else, I fear that the same is becoming true of London.
As cities like Manchester bounce back with a vengeance, it may not just be travellers who decide to set their sights outside the nation’s capital.
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