London, England: A Collection of Villages
It is likely that Celtic people had formed settlements around the U-bend loop of the River Thames, but it was the Roman invasion and settlement from AD 43 onwards that essentially put Londinium on the map. Fun fact for you: London was not the Romans’ original choice of British capital; that honour went to the garrison stronghold of Camulodunum (modern day Colchester).
Much of the early and medieval history of London was predicated on the fact that it was composed essentially of two competing neighbours: the city of London which controlled trade and finance; and the city of Westminster, responsible for government and religious observance.
Like many major world cities, London has experienced –and in many ways has been built upon – successive waves of immigrants throughout its rich history. These include but are not limited to: farm workers / serfs / peasants heading to the city for work or to make their fortune; oppressed minorities fleeing persecution in their homeland such as Jews, Huguenots and Ugandan Asians; immigrants from the Empire or Commonwealth seeking work and new opportunities – West Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, other immigrants from the Indian sub-continent or ex-colonial Africa; European Union immigrants coming here to work in the service industries, building trades or health and social care departments – Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Bulgarians, etc. London is regularly replenished and enriched by these new citizens.
Like so many world cities, London has, over the millennia, undergone a somewhat osmotic expansion, gradually subsuming surrounding areas in a manner that was not always premeditated but has been ultimately effective and final.
Perhaps for this reason, London has often been described as a collection of villages. Many of these ex-discrete locales are nowadays faceless and drive-through but some places – Crouch End, East Dulwich and Stoke Newington, for example – still try to retain that separateness, that individual identity. It seems odd today to think of Jane Austen characters riding a horse to the wooded glades of Islington. It’s almost impossible to picture Tower Hamlets as it once was. Nowadays the borough is densely populated and is home to the financial gigantism of the Canary Wharf complex – Canada Tower, London’s tallest building, and its sister skyscrapers – as well as Whitechapel where, should you wish, you can go on a guided walk through the one-time lair of Jack the Ripper; or you can enjoy the culinary delights of the curry mile centred around Brick Lane. Yet when Daniel Defoe’s protagonist in “Journal of the Plague Year” (published 1722 but set in 1665) took a boat along the Thames to Tower Hamlets they were just that – hamlets in the shadow of the Tower of London.
I was brought up in what were once the London suburbs and if you visit Finchley Central Station or those that follow it on the Northern Line tube – West Finchley, Woodside Park and Mill Hill East in particular – in their décor and layout they still have that suburban feel. As a proud Finchley boy, for years I hated the inevitable link between my home area and our sitting MP Margaret Thatcher. Despite my particular council ward returning Labour members every time, Finchley was seen as Thatcher territory – even though she was hardly ever there. The popular impression wasn’t helped by BBC political commentator David Dimbleby opining during one election, “And here she comes, Mrs Finchley”!
But I have a better claim on the territory than the wicked witch from Grantham. Finchley is my hometown. Yet when I go back these days so much of it has changed. Of my four old schools, one has been relocated, one has been knocked down, one has had its use reconfigured and the final one has been rebranded – mostly due to the sordid antics of a paedophile headmaster. Yes, I knew him well – even rode passenger in his car. No, I wasn’t a victim, thank goodness.
I go back fairly frequently for various reasons. Some parts stay the same. But, as is a common experience for so many people, the bookshops and the record shops of my youth are long gone. Gone also is the beautiful art deco Gaumont cinema where I once queued around the block to get in to a screening of “Star Wars”. (Why?)
I now live in the very southern tip of Enfield, one of London’s northernmost boroughs. Boasting something like a quarter of a million inhabitants, the borough alone is as big as many UK cities. Perhaps that explains a certain provincialism, a tendency among several other Enfieldians I know – all right, they are mostly poets who are the developed world’s oddest social breed – to not go to anything unless it’s happening in Enfield. Camden Town, West End, Poetry Café at Covent Garden? Nah, much too far. Even though you could easily get a bus or tube or use our wonderful new millennial public transport acquisition The Overground.
My personal favourite space to visit in our fair city is the “Glass” gallery, Room 131, tucked away in an upstairs wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A). Much of the 19th Century decorative work on display here is unbelievably kitsch. Epitomised best by a glass wheelbarrow with a dun coloration for which the term “ugly beautiful” could have been invented. You must go and see this gallery.
But it’s not just about the major museums and galleries, fine though they are. London is full of quirky, narrow-enthusiasm places putting on one-room, even two-cabinet exhibitions, often on a “Pop Up” temporary basis. As a starting point, go off the beaten tourist trail and, in the very shadow of the grand old British Museum, seek out the delights of the lesser-known specimens of the so-called “Museum Mile” such as the Cartoon Museum or the Sir John Soanes Museum.
But it’s not just museums. Sometimes it’s simply the London buildings themselves. Like the ancient fabled city of Troy, London has been built upon and built over layer by layer, century by century. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to raise your eyes beyond the identikit storefronts and gaze upon the parapets, the old facades above and behind like a repainted stage set. Imagine yourself back in the London of those times. So much of our city is not new-build but re-furb: look for the stories above, behind and not quite beyond what immediately meets the eye. Or do yourself a favour and take a ride on oneof our famous red London buses, grab an upstairs window seat and keep your gaze fixed on the first or second floors, not ground level.
Greater London is a proud world city. Sure, it has its faults – property prices even for bijou broom cupboard flats are sky-high, meaning those born in the city, of whatever ethnic origin, struggle to afford to buy their own places or pay the rocketing rents. The seemingly endless Crossrail project has decimated the once flourishing shops and venues of Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and surrounding areas, with the gig and G-A-Y friendly Astoria the most high profile casualty.
I mentioned a city of disparate villages. There is also a distinct North-South divide in London, with those of us from the blue magnetic pole looking down on those from the “Sarf” side of the river. Until a few years back, these dodgy hinterlands could barely muster a dozen tube stations. Even now, pretty much anything good about the south side is actually located on the riverbank, so hardly counts as Sarf. I’m thinking the IMAX cinema, the Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery. Most North Londoners barely venture further than the opposite span of one of our many iconic bridges.
I’ve had endless friendly discussions with the SF novelist Nina Allan about North London versus South London. But really, Nina – Hampstead or Nunhead? The (former) choice is obvious.
The Clash sang “London Calling” – the song received a brand new lease of life for USA folks by a location shooting of “Friends” back in the day; and Sir Ray Davies penned “Waterloo Sunset”. The Sex Pistols cruised along the water course belting out their anthemic anarchy “God Save The Queen”. Charged with this mighty heritage, I have written my own ode to the Thames – the song “Be The River”, in which I chart the mighty Thames from prehistory through several important moments in London’s back story.
We Londoners hear and are expected to put up with a load of tosh about the North East or North West of England being hotbeds of sport. Well, the London Stadium was the home of the 2012 Olympics. London holds football (soccer) teams such as FA Cup winners Arsenal and current Premier League champions Chelsea, as well as the famous Wembley Stadium – which was also the scene for Live Aid in 1985. There’s Twickenham – the home of rugby; Lord’s – the home of cricket; Wimbledon – the home of lawn tennis… You get my gist? London has world class museums, galleries and entertainment venues as well as smaller display spaces and places of interest on almost every corner.
Greater London has now reached a definite barrier which is the six-lane motorway the M25, which encircles London like a semi-porous contraceptive. This far and no further.
Fenced in by a monumental traffic jam. Very early third millennia.
I want to pass on a little bit of smart Cockney wisdom before I finish. Every blooming travel piece I ever see tells the would-be world traveller something along the lines of: “Oh, when you’re in THIS CITY / THAT PROVINCE you really must try the street food.” Well, here’s some free advice for you all: when in London, don’t eat the street food. Many of the barrows and stands around the touristy West End in particular are controlled by criminal cartels and you really cannot be sure of what actually constitutes the apparent “meat” in your hot dog. Just say no, kids.
Yes, I’m a proud Londoner and unlike those creations in “EastEnders”, I do my best not to swallow my tees or cut off my aitches.
I used to write for the listings magazine “Time Out” back in what I now realise were the good old days when it still featured cutting edge journalism. I remember and repeat – or at least paraphrase – something they once said, which is: The beauty of being from London is that you never have to explain where it is.
Oi! Aw-right, geezer!