1st July 2013 was the day we did what thousands of other Irish people our age have been doing for the last number of years. We were adamant we weren’t going to join the droves and ditch our homeland but when certain things aligned in our lives we made a huge decision and we emigrated hand-in-hand.
We chose London, which is thankfully less far flung than San Fransisco, Vancouver or Auckland, but it was never really about distance or escape. We were never escaping. Nor were we running away. We just wanted a new life and different opportunities. Much like anyone who sacrifices being around friends and family and their cherished creature comforts, you hope your nervous leap will pay off. It’s three years since that day, and in some ways our time in London have been a success and in other ways it’s been one of the toughest, most testing, most stressful times of our lives.
As we’ve documented on our blog and social media many times, it hasn’t been a straightforward journey. Rewinding for a second; In Ireland, we were laughed at for expecting well-paying entry-level jobs after our undergraduate degrees. We had the privilege (read: curse) of graduating in a depressed, turbulent economy in complete tatters. Ten years earlier and our degrees would have stood to us and stood for a lot more. We bore the brunt of the recession and lived on an absolute shoestring before skipping out on the tail end and cannonballing into the ocean that is London.
London: where if you don’t swim you most definitely sink.
We first arrived in Stratford, east London, right in the thick of the post-Olympics hangover, where all of London’s ‘2012’ hopes were pinned on regeneration and creating a new super ‘city’ with the leftovers of the Games. What we arrived to was an area going through a serious identity crisis with overpriced and highly competitive housing and no real community or local vigour – not a girl, not yet a woman. All of London is fabulously multicultural, but that brings with it a whole host of social and community issues, especially where gentrification and regeneration is concerned. We found an absolute tip of a studio flat (which we had to pay £5,000 up front for) and went through the ringer trying to get employment, with no luck for months on end.
It’s no secret that we came to London looking for career opportunities, but we have to be honest in our dream that we could sustain both our livelihoods from our little ‘ol blog alone. Is that such an unattainable fairytale? We don’t think so. So much of our experience as bloggers in London demonstrates the general attitude in London and might be relatable to lots of other peoples’ experiences of this crazy city. So, rather than go on and on about how we’ve experience London’s employers, office life and spells of unemployment, we’d rather talk about our experience as fledgling bloggers – as it tells a tale very much less told.
We knew there were greater opportunities for bloggers in London than in Dublin and it was a part of what drove us here. Since GastroGays started, we knew that popularity isn’t something to strive for. We were never the popular kids in school. We weren’t the life and soul of university. We don’t have universal appeal, so why change the habit of a lifetime? That’s not to say we aren’t confident. We blog because we have an incredible passion for food and that shines through. We have a defined voice and know our value. We always knew it would be a beautiful avenue to share our joint passion with the world. However, in our three years in London the word “blogger” has degenerated into such a filthy, dirty word, bandied about with absolute distain – the beginnings of which was probably bubbling before we arrived.
Utter the word ‘blogger’ and a snooty, entitled 19-year-old with a Macbook, rose gold iPhone and a Starbucks iced latte in hand will be the image conjured in most minds. ‘A fame-chasing freeloader who feels they’re entitled to a free lunch because they’re considered an influencer to their hoards of vapid followers’… would you agree? Many of you do, we imagine.
Blogging is so tired, old-fashioned and “passé”, choice words recently delivered to our faces by a notably influential food Instagrammer in London – blissfully unaware how insulting they were. Probably a direct attempt to undermine us: we’re two people trying to make our mark in the food writing world by working on a blog we’re incredibly proud of, which has the mark of our blood, sweat and tears (not to mention our hard-earned money) all over it.
The newspapers can’t stand bloggers anymore either. A year ago ‘food critic’ William Sitwell chimed the bells, ringing in the death of the blogger in an article in The Times, whilst ushering in the age of the Instagram influencer like the court jester pandering to the Lords above. The Observer Food Monthly, a publication we collected and had a lot of respect for – until recently – decreed that 2016 is the year blogging is dead, not in so many words but by entirely removing “Best Food Blog” category from their prestigious annual awards. What did they replace it with? Best Instagram Feed.
It’s the age of humble bragging and holier-than-thou; avocado toasts, iced lattes and negronis
We wonder what chance previous winner of said award, Jack Monroe, would have had today. None, if you’re asking us. Suitably cherished and rightly rewarded for shining a harsh light on the realities of budget cooking as far as literally counting pennies and producing incredible meals, advice and blog content. Jack’s well-informed and researched blogs and books have taken readers by the hand into a world of TRULY eating well for less (you know all those same-y titled cookbooks that profess that sentiment? Send them to your local charity shop in favour of reading Jack’s books and blog exclusively, you’ll be so much better off). Now, Jack would have to ensure impeccably (but, of course, effortlessly) styled scenes of their recipes, taken in crisp-HD quality by a DSLR, bathed in natural light with fresh florals and vintage cutlery, later crunched and uploaded to their smartphone before being furthered edited in Instagram and adorned with a witty, almost deprecating caption littered with emojis to even be within even a whiff of the same kudos they received a not so far-off few years ago.
A monkey could upload a picture to Instagram and filter it.
We’ve said it on our blog before that we’d rather have 100 followers who talk to us all the time, than 100k of which hardly any actually engage. The flaw on Instagram is that engagement is awful for some of the most popular accounts. Any old shmuck down the street can pay for social media followers (that practice is RIFE and your own feed is swimming in profiles who do this… just look at the engagement rate). You can’t pay for loyal blog readers who genuinely interact and return to your corner of the internet as they’ve grown to admire and appreciate your unique blend of recipes, pictures and comment. That OFM Award category will most likely crown some London-based Instagrammer, already neck-deep in the schmoozy world of chefs, PRs and restaurateurs of the city who is absolutely no stranger to a free meal (but will never tell you that and certainly never uses #AD or #SPON to signal their honesty).
Crunch the numbers: some of these ‘influential’ accounts have LESS THAN 1% of their 100,000s of followers actually seeing, double-tapping or commenting on what they post.
There are dogs on Instagram that have higher engagement rates…just saying. Yet Instagram is being celebrated as the social media channel to end all social media channels? You’re convincing no one. The OFM Awards – which, we’re sorry to harp on about but it’s a glaring example here – is an absolute kick in the teeth to up-and-coming food writers in the UK. Why write, why develop and test a recipe and why try to educate, inform and engage an audience when you can take a pretty photo and be applauded for it? But the question that should be asked more is why the two cannot co-exist?
We’ve long loved Instagram, but it makes the ugly very, very pretty and we can’t help but find the flaws in that
Instagram actually is awash with incredibly talented photographers, don’t get us wrong. They’d be stupid not to have a presence there, in fairness. We enjoy and support the beautiful imagery they produce and their talent, but you have to realise this is helped by the know-how of south-facing windows, additional lighting, unconventional camera angles, eye-wateringly expensive camera equipment and often even a team of stylists, home economists and assistants.
It isn’t all about Instagram though, it’s about the city of London itself too. Everyone knows it’s incredibly busy, crowded and it can be a lonely and isolating place. Despite the distance between us and home, we still feel part of the blogging community there. Maybe it’s its size, but we haven’t felt that closeness or community here in London with some exceptions (you’ll know who you are without having to list off people or businesses here). There’s a particular portion of people, who let’s not call trolls, but who only ever interact with us to deliver a snide, shitty remark on what we’ve produced or to pontificate to us or undermine us. Wether that be the fact we’re young-ish (we’re both in our mid-late twenties FFS), the fact we’re Irish (hiddledy diddeldy dee, et al), the fact we’re gay… who knows? The one thing that we give to everyone for absolute free is respect, which we expect back. Unfortunately, the world that we’ve encountered in London has lacked that.
Everyone asks us “What’s London like?”; “you must be loving it”; “you look like you’re living the life” and our perennial answers are: “tough, sometimes, and we’re not”.
London is a beast. It’s a city full of workers who literally live to work, always in a hurry, always too busy to care about you and only interested in what you can bring to the table if it will affect and improve themselves or their own position. Networking is necessary, it’s even far more ‘who you know’ than Dublin… and that’s saying something! We’re not in the business of sucking up to someone just because they have a couple thousand more followers than us or have some great clients on their bucks, nor are we going to hang off anyone who on a day-to-day basis has no interest in interacting or supporting us.
We’re proud of our integrity when it comes to anything we post, whether it’s on our blog or across our social media profiles. Integrity is far more valuable to us than likes, clicks or popularity. If we give a recommendation, you can have our word on it. Yet, countless times we’ve seen online gushing posts about how *AMAZING* a place, dish, recipe book or bar is, only to be told in person – off the record – by that same ‘influencer’ that it wasn’t actually that great. Why bother giving publicity and endorsement if you can’t stand by it? We love Grace Dent and Marina O’Loughlin, professional critics who both possess the perfect power to influence and advise with spot-on commentary seasoned with straight-up common sense. They usually find the faults you need to know about with plates and restaurants in London that those ‘Instagram influencers’ seem to gloss over, to their detriment.
So integrity, Insta-greed, popularity, trends, off-kilter engagement and being passé; where does that leave us? That question of “home” comes up all of the time, both in our personal conversations and in discussion with friends, colleagues and others. London is becoming more and more expensive to live in and, frankly, the benefit of being in a city like this is becoming less and less apparent. For example, each time we’re back in Dublin, we’re greeted with countless meetings, opportunities, and doors opening for us as bloggers, in a city where the ‘B’ word isn’t treated like dirt.
We left Dublin to grow our blog on the world stage, yet most of our opportunities are now back in Ireland. So much of these thoughts have stemmed from our presentation at the Irish Bloggers Conference back in April 2016, where we were asked to give an insight into the world of blogging here in London vs. the Dublin blogging scene. And in that room, blogging wasn’t passé and certainly was nowhere near dead.
London, We Love You, But You’re Bringing Us Down…
So. Here we are.
The original premise of GastroGays was to eat and drink our way through a bucket list of places across Dublin and write about them. In all honesty, it remains to be seen if either Dublin or London is right for us at all, but while we’re here we’re going to embrace it. For the next year, we’re going to use the same, original GG template for London, discovering restaurants, exploring activities, fulfilling our bucket list, acting the tourist, embracing all that London is and we’re going to share them. Hopefully, this will conjure and keep that original sense of excitement that we came to this city for.
London, you have a year.
Show us what you’ve got.