Monday 26 September 2016

Who wants to live in a perfect world – our colourful capital adds a bit of spice to life

Published 24/02/2014 | 02:30

Dublin, left, and London, right, offer different pleasures and have different drawbacks.
Dublin, left, and London, right, offer different pleasures and have different drawbacks.

Dublin or London? Which is the better city to live in? According to the annual Mercer 2014 Quality of Living survey, Dublin beats London – coming in at 34th best city in the top 50, while London trails four cities behind at 38th. On the criteria applied, for quality of living, freedom from pollution, low crime – yes! Amazingly! – good recreational, educational and social activities, Dublin, once dubbed 'the Second City of the Empire', has now overtaken what was the first.

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Having lived in both of them, over long stretches, and retaining a foothold in both, I'm not sure I would personally draw a categorical comparison. Dublin and London offer different pleasures, in my experience. And have different drawbacks.

Dublin, though vastly bigger than it used to be, still retains a kind of intimacy. Any denizen of the city will nearly always run into someone she knows when walking down Grafton Street, strolling around St Stephen's Green, or shopping in Moore Street and Henry Street. There is a warmth about that serendipity of human contact, particularly in this age of social media when so much of our contact is through the medium of the screen.

In London, even the long-time resident is unlikely to be stopped in Piccadilly Circus or Bond Street by a casual acquaintance or veteran neighbour. Over the last few years, particularly, native Londoners, or even Brits, have been deserting London in droves, and it is now more than 51pc foreign-born. Even allowing for its great size, London is increasingly a city of strangers.

Immigrants have taken over so much of the heart of London: and by that, I don't mean poor folk from east central Europe or refugees from Somalia or Bangladesh. The most dominant 'immigrants' are the oligarchs who seem to have bought up whole neighbourhoods – extremely rich Russians, Indians, Saudi Arabians, Chinese.

A recent study by Brian Bell at Oxford University analysing wages stretching back 40 years showed that even professionals such as scientists, academics and architects were 'struggling' to keep their head above water in London – priced out of wages and the property market by the super-rich, notably by those in the financial spheres.

So even the reasonably affluent middle-class working in London tend to live in commuter towns in Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Bedfordshire and Essex. The enormous concentration of people, the struggle to commute to work, the alarmingly high prices, for most people, must contribute to London having dropped down the scale in 'quality of living' index.

Dublin has its congestion problems and people struggle to commute to work too; some daily commuters live as far away as Mullingar, Portlaoise and Navan.

But you don't feel, in Dublin, this overwhelming sense of being a depersonalised dot in a crowd. In London, I queue for everything: the theatres and the galleries are fabulous, but every theatre seat is booked up (and it's not unusual to pay £60 (€72) for a modest theatre seat), and every exhibition heaving. All this is great for the arts – and the oligarchs, and their girlfriends, are spending money on the arts. But it slightly takes the edge off quality of life.

Dublin's great disadvantage, in my experience, is a lamentable bus service. I waited over 40 minutes at Blackrock for a bus one evening recently: it reminded me of being in Albania in the bad old Communist days. Dublin should certainly lose merit points for its very inadequate bus service – if I was dictator for a day, I'd make every politician travel by bus at least once a week. London buses arrive frequently and promptly.

Overall, though, I would concur with the survey's findings, and give Dublin the edge over London, because Dublin is somehow built to the human scale. It's big enough to be a cosmopolitan capital where people can pursue their own interests but still intimate enough to have a real, human personality.

I endorse the views of a Corkwoman I met recently who said: "I love Dublin – it's so open. It's not cliquey. You can be free but you won't be lost." That could be a mite Utopian – there are homeless and marginalised people in Dublin, as anywhere – but it's a warm analysis from an unusual source: a Corkwoman!

As for the cities that came top in the survey – Vienna winning, followed by Zurich, Auckland in New Zealand, Munich, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Vancouver – are some of them just the teeniest bit boring?

To be sure, some art experts regard Vienna's famous art gallery, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the finest in the world, and in Zurich, the trams are seldom a moment late: but not everyone wants to live in a place where the municipal authorities don't allow you to flush the loo after 10pm – as in Switzerland – for fear of disturbing the peace.

Feeling safe and secure in a city is appreciated. But a little piquancy and colour sometimes adds to the spice of life.

I wouldn't go so far as to wish to live in Baghdad, Port au Prince, or Bangui in the Central African Republic, all of which come bottom of the class, but Tbilisi in Georgia, ranked one of the worst cities in Europe, at 191st place, is to my mind a gorgeous and fascinating location.

Just as there's some good in everyone, every city surely has some virtues, as its natives and residents would affirm.

Irish Independent

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