• Source: Scotland on Sunday
  • Date: 25 April, 1999
  • Author: Antonia Swinson

Absurdly it has been six months since I have been in London, so the capital strikes me afresh like a stranger. I leap onto the Underground and know my way round every street but now I find I view London through Scottish eyes. On the journey down I read Simon Heffer?s new book. Nor Shall My Sword, in which he argues that England would be well shot of Scotland, implying that Independence would leave us facing a poverty stricken financial fate while the English would be rich and happy. I wondered whether this was part of the much hyped English backlash? I need not have worried. My friends greet me warmly; they still think I?m mad to have left London but order champagne. Is that Zo? Ball sitting over there? As the bubbles go up my nose I remember that yes, this is the London I like best. In small and preferably liquid quantities.

Famous faces are a fun part of London life. I go to David Mellor, no not the energetic football strip boy with a weakness for my namesakes, but the upmarket Sloane Square kitchen supplier. and see Andrew Lloyd Webber and his glamorous wife rifling through the oddments. They cultivate the careful middle distance celebrity gaze while apparently looking for a cheap champagne stopper. In order, as Lord L. W. tells the assistant, to make champagne last two days. Don?t cry for me Argentina I think, times must be hard. Then I read in the FT that he is taking back full control of RUG by buying back a 30% stake from Seagram. A careful man clearly looking after the baubees.

Just as well, for London eats money. Whereas in Scotland you can start the day with a tenner and end it with four pounds left, here I find myself at the cash machine twice a day with nothing to show for it. The cheapest luxury in London remains The London Evening Standard, which, along with stucco buildings and Lebanese food, is what I still miss most. On arrival I immediately buy a copy. Hot news from the Government Office for London reveal that the capital is booming, with Londoners spending an average of ?700 a year in restaurants. It is also increasingly a young capital with people in the 20 - 44 bracket making up 41% of the population (compared with the 36% of the rest of the UK) attracted by the 14 Universities, the nightlife and the jobs.

I walk along the Kings Road at lunchtime and evidence of young London eating out is before me. Girls seem to be able to take alcohol far better than I ever managed in my twenties. But so much of this lifestyle is riding on debt and bankruptcy among the young no longer stigmatised. I overhear one girl telling a friend that although she has no money for food for the rest of the day, but that she and the office have just got through ?300 worth of champagne. Courtesy of the boss. How nutritious.

I walk through Notting Hill, setting of the new movie starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It does seem odd that Hugh Grant?s character who runs a failing travel bookshop, should live in a stucco house which would now be worth ?2m. Even stranger, when one considers that he is playing a divorcee; an asset like that would have been soon sold to pay off the ex. I suspect the film reflects an earlier time in Notting Hill, when I used to live there, and where I got married ? a raffish multi-cultural kaleidoscope where the rich rubbed shoulders with everyone else over the fresh beef tomatoes at Portobello market. Then ?30K bought you a 2 bedroom flat. I determine not to sigh over property prices for the rest of my stay. For notional house values only mean big money if you want to move to a cheaper part of the country.

I meet editors and publishers and am deliciously wined and dined on mussels and chips, Belgian style. The ultra-cool restaurant is full, naturally, of young people smoking and drinking. My publisher asks me if I have written about the terrible plight of women, the fact that salaries do not reflect the cost of looking good. Make up, clothes, and good haircuts all cost money and yet this is not seen as requiring any sort of weighting allowance. I sympathise remembering my ?40 monthly dry cleaning bills when I worked in London.

As the bull market continues to roar, London gives the impression of rampant overheating. If you?ve got it, flaunt it, (or do it even if you haven?t). Walk down Bond Street and just watch those Prada babes shine. But the trouble is that now we see a brutal dividing of the south-east middle classes as some people earn huge sums in the City, while others go bust keeping up appearances. I meet more friends over dinner and asking after mutual friends, learn that one has just sold his business for ?20m while another has had her home, cheques and chequecard taken away and is sleeping in the office.

Finally I am taken to the American Bar at the Savoy before being poured back on the train. "Don?t you ever think of coming back ?" my companion asks. "Sometimes," I say, not to hurt his feelings. For there is nothing to beat London sophistication and I do love Londoners? sense of humour. Yet I find myself facing King?s Cross with equanimity; for me solvency and sanity start north of the border.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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