I am reaching the end of my winter sojourn in Bristol. I have been here, more or less, since October last year, and next week is my last.
Since leaving London permanently at the end of 2017, I have learned one thing beyond doubt: my local habitat plays an incalculably important role in the things I do, the people I see, and how I feel day to day.
Let me begin this piece by saying that I have enjoyed spectacularly wonderful days in London, and look forward to many more in the coming years. I particularly cherish the cacophonous abundance of nations and cultures, and the lush green patchwork of parks and gardens.
However, the accusation often levelled at London, particularly by outsiders who have never lived there, is that it is ‘too big’. After 16 years in the Big Smoke, I think I am at least qualified to agree.
Of course, many people live extraordinary lives of joy and connection in London and have no trouble bounding over its sprawling morass, or simply confining themselves to a more manageable slice of the metropolis.
I was not one of them. And, after a year apart from the old mistress, I think I understand why.
The truth isn’t earth-shattering; in fact, it’s pretty obvious if you’ve ever spent any time as a human being. In a smaller conurbation, it’s easier to be sociable and that sociability is what makes me happy.
Nowhere worth going in Bristol is more than about 20 minutes by bike from my house. The compact nature of the city has two effects on the population, each reinforced by the other, which I reckon result in a more sociable society.
In Bristol, I know that whomsoever I meet, and wherever I meet them, there’s a decent chance that they’ll live within about 20 minutes’ bike ride of my house. And this makes it likely that I’ll meet them again, either by chance or by appointment.
This likelihood has two consequences. Firstly, I’m less likely to be a dick to strangers because, chances are, our paths will cross either personally or through presently unknown mutual friends. Secondly, I’m more likely to actually meet up with people I do hit it off with, simply because it’s easy.
The second effect of smaller city size is that no one here has a commute time of more than 20 minutes – at least in theory.
Commute time is famously correlated with positive affect, or happiness. If you’re commuting for more than an hour a day, then you’re likely to be miserable. Or at least more tired and less likely to want to meet friends – old or new.
The converse is true. In a city like Bristol where commute times are short, people are more likely to go out after work to socialise and they’re less likely to want to stay in bed all weekend just recovering from work.
As a consequence, they’re more likely to have hobbies, be members of a club, or just have a local drinking haunt.
And what does that mean? You’re more likely to bump into them out and about, you’re both more likely to be feeling positive and open to new encounters, and, thanks to the size of the city, also more likely to meet up again.
In a city with an enormous population, people just don’t matter so much. You’re vanishingly likely to bump into the same stranger twice. When you spot a friend on the tube, you both react like you’ve won a million quid on the lottery.
(In fact, your chances of winning a million quid on the lottery are better. Assuming you only have one friend.)
If you’re confident that you’ll never see Joe Bloggs again, you’re hardly likely to be bursting with social bon homie – or even goddam polite, are you?
I speak primarily for myself, but that’s why we Londoners walk around with our eyes downcast, hidden behind sunglasses, or buried in newspapers and smartphones. What’s the point? Strangers aren’t important because they’re just one in ten million, all too often mere obstacles to circumnavigate on our way through the chaotic city.
In smaller towns, people are more precious. There are still 460,000 people here in Bristol, still plenty of personalities to mesh or clash with, but each one has a distinct value. I’ve bumped into countless people I know here. It happens most days I leave the house – and I’ve only been here for 4 months, remember.
Every interaction here carries higher stakes: we are both on something like our best behaviour because we both know that the social network will, more or less, hold us to account – even if we don’t get on personally.
Of course this close community has its downsides. London’s anonymity is not without its pleasures. You can do anything, be anyone, and reinvent yourself every other Tuesday if you please. But, for me, this luxury is not worth the price I pay in social isolation.
Talking of social isolation: here’s an interview with loneliness researcher John Cacioppo.
Talking of leaving London: apparently I’m not the only one.