Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

Matthew d'Ancona's programme on Radio Four about the nature of Britishness was interesting – if not quite as enthralling as The Men Who Fell To Earth, a brilliant documentary about military parachuting that came later this morning – but the more I'm asked whether I feel British or English or European the more I think of myself as a citizen of another nation altogether – London.

I was born in Yorkshire but I've lived in London since 1968. My children have all been born and brought up in London. They think of themselves as Londoners and so do I. It's not that strange now, is it? Before there was a place called Italy people called themselves Florentines or Neopolitans. I wonder whether the world's going back that way.

In the time I've lived in the city London has undergone a historic transformation. One third of the people living in London were born overseas. Just think about that. One third *born* overseas. That's not counting the number of people whose immediate forebears came from overseas or the people, like me, who were born elsewhere in the UK. That doesn't disturb me at at all. In fact I think it's reason for rejoicing. This must mean that we are heading for the almost unique situation of living in a city populated by families who all somehow chose to be here.

I don't make any claim for London as some sort of rainbow community and, like all Londoners, I am sufficiently aware of its shortcomings to raise my eyes to heaven when a provincial visitor squashed into a tube carriage exclaims "Gosh, I couldn't do this every day!" but I identify with the place increasingly strongly. On 7/7 my dominant emotion, apart from compassion for the dead and maimed, was outrage that a bunch of misanthropic twats from mono-cultural streets in Leeds should let off bombs on tube carriages and buses in London, a place they knew nothing about. If they had done they would have known it was the one place on earth apart from New York where they were most likely to have slaughtered a representative sampling of the population of the earth.


  1. When I lived in Sydney, a city that flatters itself to be mulicultural and rich in diversity but in fact is amazingly provincial and small-minded, I used to come back to London and wander down Oxford Street -- yes Oxford Street -- literally muttering, "I love this place.... I love this place." Even New York has a tough time comparing these days. London stands alone for all the reasons you say Dave.

  2. I have mixed emotions about the place now, I was born in London and lived there for 30 years but I've spent the past 16 abroad and it's hard not to fall into the typical expat feeling of annoyance that the place hasn't stayed the same as when you left it.

    I'll probably never stop thinking of myself as "Londoner" though which says something about the emotional pull the old place has.

  3. I lived in London for four years and can no more relate to being a Londoner than I can to being Prince Charles.
    The mass exodus from London in particular and England in general in the last twenty years would suggest that people moving in have not chosen in any way to move, rather they have been displaced.The choices have been made by those on their way out.
    Comparing London with NY is spot on. The cities both have wealthy, happy enclaves, but in large part their overall population levels are maintained by no more than modern-day peasant population shifts.
    In the end, we relate to friends and families, at the very most. Loving a city seems as fanciful as hating one seems mad.

  4. As a proud Welshman brought up in Grimsby but having lived in London for the last 23 years I have allegiances all over the place. Rather enjoy them actually.

    But I think, if I am honest with myself, that above all I consider myself a Londoner. Especially today with the skies as blue as the day England won the 1966 world cup and the sun shining. London looks and feels magnificent. Crossing the Thames was like viewing a piece of art. It is a gob-smackingly cosmopolitan city and endlessly interesting - to my eyes beyond even New York these days. And in my village within London (or "enclave")I know & actively socialise with at least as many neighbours as my mates up in Grimsby do with theirs.

  5. It was nice this morning chugging past st pauls the streets filled with Police looking for trouble!
    DH: I'm glad I am not alone in thinking the 7/7 muderers had large proportion of chippy proviciality in their Ideaology.It was clear by their targets they knew little about the place and just needed the physical distance in order to justify their crimes to themselves; presumably seeing that "London" as the source of the grievances.
    As to London being unfriendly I always feel in small towns people are friendly because they have to be were as in London people are friendly because they want to be.

  6. In a possibly unique occurrence I agree with every single word of this. Is it too late to start a Hepworth for mayor campaign?

    London's most eloquent response to the 7/7 bombers was the almost total lack of reprisals against the Muslim community following the attacks despite no shortage of obvious targets.

    As one of the condolence messages read they had 'picked on the wrong city'.

    Andre - I don't think it is at all fanciful to love a city. I love London the place - walking down Fleet Street and across Waterloo Bridge in spring sunshine the other day I found myself muttering much like Phil Thomas. But I also love what it stands for and have started to understand - after 20 years - that you may not be able to have the good bits without also suffering the bad.

  7. Also in the tiny northern village I grew up in the only famous person we use to see with any regularity was Dicky Bird! Look who my mate bumped into this morning
    It's fun to live where things go on.

  8. Having recently returned from 5 months in Italy, I can confidently say that many Italians still 'define' themselves by their region first and foremost. Living in Firenze I was struck by the extent to which people had a real sense of being Fiorentine. When the national football team plays, everyone is Italian.

  9. Patrick - same here in Brazil. People in Sao Paulo State view Rio as home to bunch of stealing ne'er-do-wells, whilst the Cariocas think the Paulistas should learn to relax a bit. Minas Gerais State is viewed very much as another country, everyone in the south is regarded as not that manly (let's say)and the north and northeast of the country are beyond help, ravaged by corrupt politicians and drought, with a sprinkling of laziness, to boot. Then the footy kicks off and its one for all and all for one. All this in a continental-sized country which has written the book on multi-cultural integration.

  10. Born and raised in London, lived mostly here, but also lived in other places. People say New York is rude, but I found it more polite than London, although that may have been because of my accent. London is more polite than Paris, but that's not saying much.But I can say that about London because it's where I'm from.

    I'm British at a push, my family came to the UK in the 60s, but I'm definitely a Londoner. My wife who's from the West Country though considers herself a Londoner now after having lived here for seven years. I think it's more than a region though it's a country all of it's own. Passport To Pimlico had the right idea.

  11. I only lived in London for three years or so while at university, and grumbled about it at the time. But I still find myself using it as the yardstick for everything and everywhere else. I was also surprised on my first visit there in more than a decade by how attached I felt to the place. London is definitely a different country.

  12. I was born in London, and the generation before me were all born and bred Londoners who moved out to the provinces in the late sixties. As much as I love the place (I still work in town Monday to Friday and visit regularly at the weekends) it's not what it was - there's a style of London banter, humor and 'snap' that just doesn't exist anymore - but I would guess this is the same for any major city.