If you haven’t yet read London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins’ epic tale of a south-of-the-river street and its inhabitants, now might be a good time to do so. It is one of my favourite London books.
As dusk falls, the Park in the background becomes vast and mysterious, and the gas lamps that light your way along the main paths dwindle into the distance like lanterns in Illyria. But somehow or other it remains London, with the buses that cruise up Park Lane twinkling through the railings, and the air filled with the roar and rustle of innumerable wheels. Yes, it’s London all right…
How much longer that will be the case remains to be seen. The gas lights have long gone and the buses are now diesel-electric hybrids. Other, less cosmetic, changes are also afoot.
It is a given that laments such as this one and this one have been written ever since shortly after the Great Fire (‘I remember when all this was plague pits!’). But from reading such stories at a safe, half-the-globe-away distance, it appears that my old life in London – minor job in the City, nice flat with decent landlady, The Dolphin for cheap nights out, Fabric for a payday splurge – no longer exists. Sadness and some anger results.
When I first arrived in London, there were still artists living in Hoxton Square, as incredible as that seems now. They were pushed out further and further, from N1 to Hackney, some heading down to Deptford. Faced with the prospect of living in Zone 6 by the time this ends, a few brave souls have cut their losses completely, leaving London to those who think £800 pcm is reasonable for a flat where you can boil the kettle and brush your teeth without leaving the comfort of your bed. Eventually, the culture of what almost no one still calls ‘The Big Smoke’, with its feel of a hundred slightly-connected villages, will be that of Dubai, or parts of Switzerland.
I was once asked where the centre of London was and I couldn’t begin to say. Is it Trafalgar Square? No, that is for tourists. Residents usually only go there to change buses. Oxford Street? Best avoided in summer, the January sales and before Christmas. Instead of one midpoint, each former village has its own centre and characteristics, usually based upon who has settled there or what their trade was. One of my friends was surprised to learn that her entire post code was full of Portuguese expats when coming home one evening during some sporting event to find all the lampposts, stores and restaurants hung with flags. Choosing between bagels or curry on Brick Lane, seeing a quiet Bethnal Greet street come alive every Saturday with families going to the synagogue at the end of the road, dancing to the Skatalites in Finsbury Park. Talking nonsense in the open-all-night Italian cafés of Soho, my first taste of Jamaican ackee and saltfish in Lewisham, hearing of someone who went on holiday to Poland and came back with what he thought were rare treats, only to be told they were selling the same brands in the local corner shop… it was easy to track the ebb and flow of established communities and recent arrivals (often via food).
Similar renewals have always been part of London’s story. The most notorious slums in the city once stood not too far from Covent Garden. The neighbourhood of opium dens that Dorian Gray frequented are now full of yellow brick and glass buy-to-let blocks. The old City fell once to the Luftwaffe’s bombs – which just missed St Paul’s – and then again to the planners, the brutalists and futurists. The fogs and ‘pea-soupers’, so dense that they are almost another character in London books as diverse as the Sherlock Holmes stories, the debut of George Smiley (and John le Carré) and Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head, have been consigned to the past. Still, hours of entertainment can be had walking around and trying to imagine what was once there. One weekend I stumbled across Cable Street – scene of the famous 1930s battle – by taking a wrong turn under a flyover.
London does encourage flights of fancy: I don’t think I ever took the bus over Waterloo Bridge without thinking of Terry and Julie and humming a little. I always expected to see some of Michael Frayn’s characters from another great London book – Towards the End of the Morning – as I stumbled out of a Fleet Street boozer at closing time. Despite the near constant tinkering – as Mark Woff once noted: ‘London, it’ll be great when it’s finished’ – scenes of Gordon Comstock’s Hampstead tedium, the impossible-to-escape pubs of Earl’s Court in Hangover Square and of course hints of all of the Dickens still remain, tucked away. Perhaps London changes, but Londoners rarely do. It is a broad club. I think I know one true, born and bred Londoner, everyone else being later transplants, but it doesn’t take long until you’re ‘part of the furniture‘. Then you can enjoy all the fun of going back home for a visit and playing a game of ‘Guess how much this costs in London’, with friends who think you must have lost your mind to want to live there.
Even on a fairly median wage, it always seemed possible to get a glimpse of the other London. The 1%’s town hovered at the edge of our vision like something out of China Miéville’s The City & The City: champagne bars on the client’s tab, openings at galleries, a Soho rooftop party complete with hot tubs. Once accidentally going clubbing to the kind of place the young Royals used to drink in, or the time a celebrity came over to our table at a cabaret to admire my friend’s dress, another evening at a private club that almost had a secret handshake on entry, the night we blagged into the Gaucho Club and were bought drinks by John Diamond (one of the best conversationalists, even though using pen and notepad). It is easy to write your own legends. But some of the best times were at the opposite end of the scale: £5 to get into The Ultimate Hackney Warehouse Rave with all my pals, a Friday evening at Tate Modern, weekend lazing in Regent’s or Victoria or one of the other amazing parks. London living wasn’t always out of the reach of the non-bankers.
Now though, it seems the monied classes have grown tired of their fun being invaded by the plebs. As Focus E15 and Islington Park Street have discovered, there is a cleansing going on. We poke fun at the Sixties town planners, deride and tear down their visions of the future rendered in concrete – including the playgrounds. But they understood, perhaps better than their counterparts in Paris or other segregated capitals, the vibrancy that comes from having the money and the talent in close proximity. When all the proles have been moved to the Outer Zones, when the record shops of Soho are shuttered and the street markets redeveloped – when London is essentially Singapore with worse weather – why will anyone, including the mega-rich, bother with it?
Well, perhaps it is no longer our problem. Escape to a life that doesn’t involve having to get on the Northern Line in rush hour. Head to the regional cities, with their quality of life, branches of famous department stores and exquisite cultural gems. Go wild in the country and pretend you don’t care about fast broadband anyway. Or move further away, for all that I constantly hear about how expensive Tokyo is, I used to live in the equivalent of Zone 1 in a studio flat and still had cash left over for fun and fripperies. Couldn’t make a cup of tea without getting out of bed first though. Damn.
What’s inevitable in all these ‘farewell London’ laments is that the people going are of a certain age, bringing up children or looking to move beyond flatmates and stumbling off night buses. It is entirely right that they should be moving to somewhere leafier and leaving the bright lights to the youth and eternally young. And if you are feeling like you have to leave, but are not quite ready to be put out to pasture, when you reach your new destination: make it shine. Support local arts and community groups. Grow things. Regenerate (sympathetically) and nurture. Use your London nous and contacts to develop and mentor. Then perhaps we will finally see the long-promised rebalancing of Britain as being more than its capital. Who does London belong to? As it was with the Ancient Britons, the Romans or the Huguenots, as for the West Indians, Poles and Chinese, it may belong to you. Through generations or for the blink of an eye, the true London spirit is to enjoy it while it lasts.
Some of my favourite London books:
- Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Arthur Conan Doyle The Red-Headed League
- John le Carre Call for the Dead
- Iris Murdoch A Severed Head
- Michael Frayn Towards the End of the Morning
- Patrick Hamilton Hangover Square
- Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook
- George Orwell Keep the Aspidistra Flying
- Charles Dickens Oliver Twist
- Andrea Levy Small Island
What are yours?