Sunday, June 24, 2012
What makes someone a Londoner?
The Canadian writer Craig Taylor examines this question in his excellent book 'Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now—As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It' and finds a bewildering variety of answers from the hundreds of people he interviewed.
For some, being a Londoner is simply a matter of having been born within a clearly defined geographical area, but nobody seems to be able to agree what on is and isn't London, with definitions ranging from anywhere within the M25, to a few miles either side of Trafalgar Square.
For others, being a Londoner is a state of mind, or a badge of honour that can be earned by anyone who learns to survive in the city.
Technically I suppose that I'm a Londoner. I grew up in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames and spent the first three quarters of my life living within ten miles of Hyde Park Corner. But as a child, I always regarded London as a remote, exotic place, full of odd-looking people, where everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
The impression of remoteness was compounded by the tortuously slow journey into London by bus and tube, which usually took at least an hour. On the one occasion I cycled into London, I was amazed at how quickly I got there.
We rarely went up to London. I was never given a reason, but I overheard depressingly bigoted mutterings about the expense, the coloureds and the people on drugs. My parents were much happier driving out to the Surrey countryside or, if the weather was good, down to the coast, where we would huddle behind a windbreak on pebbly beaches and pretend that it was still 1935.
My father always told people that we came from Middlesex and rued the day when the county was absorbed into Greater London, as if a wall had been breached. London was elsewhere. It began somewhere after Putney; on the other side of Hammersmith Bridge; just before Clapham Junction. It wasn't Wimbledon, but it was Acton.
For Craig Taylor, Londoners are simply "the people you see around you. The ones who stock the tube trains and fill the pavements and queue in Tesco with armfuls of plastic-wrapped veg. Whatever their reason or origin, they are laughing, rushing, coniving, snatching free evening newspapers, speaking into phones, complaining, sweeping floors, tending to hedge funds, pushing empty pint glasses, marching, arguing, drinking, kneeling, swaying, huffing at those who stand on the left-hand side of the escalator, moving, moving, always moving. It's a city of verbs."
But my favourite defintion of a Londoner comes from a stranger that Taylor met in a Cricklewood pub:
"The only thing I know is that a real Londoner would never, ever, ever eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody steak houses in the West End. That's how you tell."
A 448-page book consisting of 200 interviews with people who live and work in London could be a rather dry read, but Londoners is one of the most moving and compelling books I've come across, with some stories that are more extraordinary than any work of fiction. Anyone who has ever travelled on public transport and wondered about the hidden lives and secret thoughts of their fellow passengers will enjoy this book.
Reading Londoners, I felt an increasing admiration for the interviewees' passionate, brave, difficult and sometimes rewarding struggles with an unforgiving city, particularly those who had migrated from abroad, with no family or friends to support them. I also felt a growing conviction that being a Londoner was not a birthright, but something that had to be earned.
I have never eaten in an Angus Steak House, but I would never dare to call myself a Londoner.