London’s prisoners of money

Just back from a trip to London. I had a good time. Customer service in shops is much better than in Sofia, the roads and pavements are smoother, the trains are more comfortable and faster. And stores – in the West End at least – are more imaginatively window-dressed. I always enjoy visiting Harrods and leaving with a couple of tins of gingerbread cookies, which will later double as colourful stationery boxes for my children!

London is well organized for such a large city. There is a vision behind it; clearly some vague intelligence and planning is at the helm, ensuring that it runs smoothly. And then there’s also Boris Johnson in the mayor’s office.

Unlike in Sofia, CCTV cameras monitor Londoners’ movements. So much so that you really have to pity petty criminals; life must be tougher for them all the time. Bank robberies are a thing of the past and now street crime must be a bit tricky too. Probably some kind of cyber crime – identity fraud – is more lucrative.

So, superficially, at least, London looks good. And yet I always come away feeling slightly uneasy, even puzzled. It’s all down to money. I know, filthy lucre! Take my friend who works in the financial sector. He earns £80,000 a year and lives in a London suburb with his wife and two children in a rambling semi-detached house. But he said he still finds life “a struggle”. This would be an unimaginably colossal salary to any Bulgarian. And yet life was still “a struggle”. I won’t give you a breakdown of his living expenses. Suffice to say he has a big mortgage but he’s not extravagant.

I told another affluent friend about life in Bulgaria. I described the sprawling ghettos where most live – the streets without a name, about my mother-in-law who is so loath to spend money (through lack of it but also habit) that even if you gave her a few leva she would never buy a coffee. “Ah, she’s a prisoner of money,” he said. It’s a funny thing he’d say that because it also occurred to me that the reverse could apply. Rather that the UK’s – specifically London’s – stratospheric living costs must be very stressful. Three days wandering around the West End and the combination of high fares, four to five quid a time pints of beer, and exorbitantly priced cheese sandwiches had me feeling as if I were carrying a wallet that everyone was free to raid at random.

I should make a declaration. I hate money. By this I don’t mean I dislike having it. On the contrary – I like it. Or, correction, would like it if I had it. What I mean is that I find business and financial matters incredibly tedious and insufferably vulgar to read about. I simply don’t understand the world of finance. I don’t like it when I overhear some people talking about a business deal in public. I start yawning when people talk about winning the lottery. And I never read those “me and my money” type articles in the British press in which people talk about how they bought a house in Stoke Newington for 30,000 pounds in 1980 and it’s now worth over half a million. Perhaps that’s why I’m irritated. You see, it seems to me, that nobody in the UK talks about anything else except money these days.

What is Britain’s prosperity is based on? A few years back I shared a house in London. One guy told me he was a broker. Another an investment analyst. I did a double take when a particularly slobbish fellow told me he was a risk analyst. He quoted a salary that seemed to me to be very high – obviously not enough for him to buy his own place but much too high for him, nonetheless, considering his general dimwittedness and slothfulness. Just having this guy in the house was a major risk to his fellow lodgers.

All these financial whizz kids – presumably ticking off zeroes on computers – had me wondering whether Britain just exists in a speculative bubble. I still have a lingering suspicion that Britain’s prosperity is just an illusion. I hope I’m wrong. Meanwhile, my wife and I and two children will not be re-locating back to London – barring an extraordinary development. Even a studio flat above a kebab shop in Harlesden is out of our price range.

Which reminds me…

“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21)

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