You could drop dead on the street in London and no one would care

When you are a certain age, the Great London Exodus happens, writes Paula Gahan

Paula Gahan is from Kildare, but lives in London. She works as cabin crew for an international airline

Samuel Johnson wrote the famous line "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." But that was back in 1777.

Nowadays, if you’re tired of London, you are likely to be tired of paying 12 quid for a chardonnay in Shoreditch and living in a glorified hostel in Hounslow.

I’ve noticed that when you are a certain age, The Great London Exodus happens. That’s when the sheen of city-living has worn off and reality slaps you in the face like a cold dead fish. Most of my friends aged between about 30 and 40 have either moved back home or emigrated to less overpopulated and expensive areas.

Here are the main reasons for the Great London Exodus.

Housing
There's a certain romance to living in squats in your twenties. It will be a good story for when you are rich and famous and humbly recount your tale of poverty on the Graham Norton show.

Fast forward five years and the novelty of bohemian squalor has worn off. None of us have been on the Graham Norton show and your housemates are getting younger while you are now that weird person in their thirties and still sharing.

The housing market is so overcrowded that people have little shame in offering up living conditions you wouldn't put a hamster in

The housing market is so overcrowded that people have little shame in offering up living conditions you wouldn’t put a hamster in. I remember once I saw a room in Kensington for £700 a month, a bargain price for this prime location. When I arrived, I was led into the kitchen and shown a mattress that was positioned under a sloping wall. I would be paying 700 quid a month to live like a house pet.

I laughed at the audacity of the woman showing me around and asked whether anyone had actually been interested? She looked offended. “Well I did say in the ad it wouldn’t suit a tall person,” she said.

Right.

The dream has died
Most people move to London for a reason; usually to "make it" in whatever industry they're in. I knew a female comedian who had been grinding like crazy for more than 10 years. She was always "up and coming", but never seemed to arrive. Just before the pandemic she left London and dropped off the scene completely,. She deleted all social media and disappeared. I still ask what happened to her, but no one really knows. She cut off all contact with her old life and now lives quietly somewhere in Ireland with her partner.

People don’t really announce it when they quit, they tend to go the way of Amelia Earhart’s plane; lots of speculation and rumour, but no one really knows what happened.

The dark side
One of the first things you'll notice about London is how much money is floating around. Ferraris on Park Lane and Saudi oil millionaires and oligarchs splashing the cash in Mayfair are a stark contrast to your bedsit in Hackney.

I spoke to a nurse, who worked in a famous Harley Street clinic. One of the secretaries there was always decked out in designer gear, with expensive nails, highlighted hair and a Botoxed face. “How does she afford all that on our salary?” she asked a co-worker, who looked at her like she’d just asked if the Easter bunny was real. “Obviously, she has a sugar daddy,” she said.

Sick of living like a pauper, the nurse, who we shall call Allison, although that is not her real name, had decided she wanted a piece of the pie and signed up with an online sugar dating agency where she met a middle-aged millionaire who set her up with an apartment in Mayfair.

Allison could only bring herself to sleep with the man when she was drunk. She started drinking champagne in the bathroom in the morning with all the taps on so he wouldn’t hear. Allison had to leave the apartment and London altogether when her drinking got out of hand. She is now back working as a hospital nurse, but the contrast between that and her old Mayfair life still irks her.

“Sometimes I’m tempted to ring him up, if I’ve had a few drinks. It’s just such easy money,” she said. Allison regrets not cashing in a bit more when she had the chance. “He had this girlfriend who he bought a house for. She looked just like me, but was no craic. I was like the British, fun version of her.’

People who need people
Londoners, they're a unique bunch alright. People are drawn to the overpopulated, overpriced city for a multitude of reasons. It is rarely to make friends, though. I've met the greatest people in London and the worst.

A few years ago, I had a spontaneous allergic reaction to something I ate, my tongue and mouth started to swell rapidly. I panicked and raced down the stairs to head to A&E before my airways closed. I ran into my housemate on the way out, who asked me where I was going. Panicked, with tears streaming down my face, I explained what was happening, to which she replied: “You’re going to be waiting ages though’,” before sauntering off to smoke a joint.

Wow, that’s London for you. You could literally drop dead on the street and no one would care, which is all well and good until something awful happens and you do need some human support. I think if I hadn’t already bought my apartment and was still living in the houseshare when my father died last year, I would probably have moved home.

This is what prompts many people to leave London. I spoke to a friend who left London to care for her terminally ill father. “It was always like a sort of unwritten pact I had with myself, that if anything ever happened my family, I’d leave.”

Leaving London
While all this sounds a bit grim, the good news is, if you've made it past 30 and managed to survive the Great London Exodus, you'll probably be there forever. I don't know when the next existential London crisis will hit, but when it does, you'll be the first to find out.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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