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.


MikeP said...

I was born in Sarfend, the Londoners' playground, and lived in London for 35 years, but never considered myself a proper Londoner. My children were both born in University College Hospital in Bloomsbury and have lived in London all their lives, so I reckon they're Londoners by any definition. It used to annoy the hell out of me, when we lived in Alexandra Park, between Wood Green and Muswell Hill, that they talked of 'going to London'...'you're already there,' I would growl to no effect. I had this rather snooty theory that things didn't really get suburban until you went outside the North or South Circular; our babysitting circle was half inside the N Circular and half outside, and if I was crossing over I would talk of going to Middlesex. But such posturing never really helped. Now, of course, I live in Cornwall but wouldn't dream of calling myself a Cornishman. Perhaps I'd better go back to Sarfend.

Anonymous said...

' 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.'

part of being a Londomer is psychological: a matter of perception. There are places- and Richmond is one- that are in London, but not of London. A few years ago the IRA blew damaged Hammersmith Bridge and there was a campaign in Barnes not to repair it. Hounslow is further from central London than Barnes or Richmond but psychologically closer.

Martin said...

I've stayed there on occasion, visited the 'sights' and tourist traps, enjoyed the galleries and museums, attended seminars and conferences, trudged back and forth for two years as a weary postgraduate. Now, I've become a master of the invented excuse for not travelling to the capital. From where I'm standing, there's too high a price on the label, 'Londoner'.

Steerforth said...

Mike - I was going the cite the N/S Circular as a good boundary, but then I thought of so many exceptions it started to fall apart. But as a rule of thumb, it's quite reliable.

I suppose there's a Dante-esque aspect to this, with the Circle Line as one of the inner circles of Hell, followed by the N/S Circular, then the boundary of the GLA, then the M25.

Anonymous - I couldn't agree more. Hammersmith Bridge always felt
like a border crossing and once we reached the other side of the Thames, I felt that I was in London. As for Hounslow, I was shocked when I recently discovered that it was only four miles from my old home. It felt much further.

I think that the affluent, predominantly white middle class areas like Wimbledon, East Sheen, Putney and parts of Chiswick evolved a 'villagey' identity that separated them from the spawl of London, but the poorer areas like Hounslow, Wembley and Acton, with a high immigrant population, were more than happy to identify with a cosmopolitan world city.

Martin - I'm ambivalent about London. When I lived and worked there, I loved being in such a vibrant, energetic place, full of possibilities, but I also felt depressed by the way so many people turned a blind eye to the poverty and undercurrents of violence.

I used to run a bookshop in Clapham and on my customers were possibly the most interesting, highly educated people I've come across. I liked that. I also enjoyed the after-work drinks in 'funky' bars, one of which had a swimming pool. It felt like a place of possibilities, but it also showed no mercy to those who didn't have the money, education or possibilities. One of my staff was a single mother trying to raise a child on the 9th floor of a tower block and hold down a full-time job. I don't think she found Clapham very funky.

I prefer living in a town where I can see the countryside and recognise people in the street, but I do like the fact that London is only an hour away on the train, so I haven't burned my boats completely.

Canadian Chickadee said...

My husband was raised in St. Albans, but moved to Seattle when he was twenty. Growing up, London was such a foreign place that the only time he went there, was to get his school uniforms. It wasn't until after we were married and returned to England for a visit that he actually spent any time there. We both prefer the countryside, with grass and trees and sheep and the occasional village and cottages ... but you can't beat London for things like museums and the theatre. There is no other city on earth as cultured or cosmopolitan as London. Not even New York, though the true New Yorker would probably beg to differ.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Technically I'm Surrey-born, but Purley/Croydon is adjacent to the London postal districts, and as I spent a lot of time in London proper as a student etc, I've always considered myself a Sarf Lund'ner. These days I couldn't live there, but like you I like being an hour away from the West End (and other attractions). Sounds a wonderful book.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

I've never been to an Angus Steakhouse but will go one day just to be transgressive. Lived here since I was 16. People say to me "How can you live in London! Oxford Street is so awful!" I don't live in Oxford Street, and it's just a rather large shopping street. Perhaps it's code for something?

lucy joy said...

This reminded me of a post which made me smile last year.
That book sounds a whole lot better than the adverts featured in the post:

Unknown said...

I am born of a father from Marylebone but I am in Cambridge (the UK one). When in London I feel it is my place if one could only get all the 'in-comers' out of the way!

Very odd to walk around English streets both in London & here in Cambridge where one often hears no English spoken ... whatever has happened?

Sarah said...

I was born in the London Borough of Havering, County of Essex in another of those dodgy border towns, Hornchurch.

As a child I used to love going up to London to visit or go to the sales - Heals was always fun and Harrods was something else.

Then I started work in Belsize Park and had to contend with commuting and the Northern Line which was one of Dante's rungs of Hell I'm sure (even if he didn't know it at the time). It was not fun.

I did not regret leaving to come to France, but I love going back to visit, and my boys love London too.

Am I a Londoner? I feel comfortable, at home in London, not a stranger like I do in Paris, so I suppose I am.

resolutereader said...

Having lived away from London for many years, I may have forgotten, but how exactly do Londoners "stock the tube trains"? This sounds like fun.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I prefer the countryside too, but love being close to London so that I can have the best of both worlds.

Annabel - Well, Croydon played a starring role in the London riots, so it's definitely not Surrey now. The last time I was there (quite recently), it felt very 'London'.

Richmonde - I think I'm going to try one too now, if only to see who actually goes to them.

Lucy - Thanks for the link to the hilarious, self-congratulatory posters. The 'up its own backside' aspect of London was something that I was glad to leave behind.

Anne - I'm ambivalent. On the one hand I think London is a more vibrant place now that it is a world city - it used to feel so drab and depressed - but I worry that the traditional communities have been dispersed and the place has become all about money, with ghettos for the rich and poor. It's always been like that, but it seems more polarised today.

Sarah - I much prefer London to Paris (as do several hundred thousand French people) - now there's a city that loves itself too much.

Resolute Reader - I certainly feel like stock when I'm squashed against a train door with my face in someone's armpit.

Grey Area said...

I actually loved my (nearly 10 ) years in London, but left when I realised it was much, MUCH bigger than me and the only way to appreciate it was from a distance or from behind the barricade of money. When I am there now and meet friends for drinks in Charring Cross, I still absent mindedly turn east towards my old flat in Aldgate before I correct my self and head for the station. On a more important note - that is probably the cleverest, most subtle book jacket design I've seen in years - but you'd have to know in london to appreciate it.

Steerforth said...

Yes, when I've been for a drink at The Coal Hole and I'm on the platform at Embankment, I feel a pang when the Richmond train arrives and want to jump on it. But I can honestly say that in ten years of living in Sussex, I have never, ever regretted leaving London.

If I'd moved to Cornwall, it might have been a different story, but I can reach the centre of London in almost the same time that it took the 33 bus and District Line to get me there from Teddington, so I've lost nothing and gained a lot.

Steerforth said...

By the way, I agree about the cover.

Rog said...

Denis Norden on R4 "My Word" once told a long story about May Brown and her boyfriend who she offered to lend her horse to. He declined at the end saying "May B. - it's a big horse - I'm a Londoner"

Ok you had to there probably

Annabel (gaskella) said...

Just remembered - I have eaten in an Angus SteakHouse - the one on Oxford Street! But I was a kid, and we were treated by my Aunt down from Yorkshire, so I think my Sarf Lund'n credentials are just about safe...

Sarah said...

I agree about the cover too. Superb design.

LC said...

I count myself as a Londoner along with the countless others who came here simply because they could not fit in back home. London doesn't expect you to fit in, it only expects you to stand on the right. For the love of Christ, Buddha and Mohamed, stand on the right.

zmkc said...

I think there is also the problem that you can define yourself as a Londoner but mean by that that you regard yourself as a citizen of a city that no longer exists. That is how I feel - I was born in London, but the London I was born in has gone and, whatever that place that is there instead is, it has very little to do with London, as I understand the concept.

Steerforth said...

I quite agree. I miss the 'Passport to Pimlico' London and the sense of it being a collection of villages, but there was also a drabness about London which I didn't like. It may have been replaced with the glib superficiality of a 'world city' and many aspects of it make me cringe, but London seems a more exciting place than it used to be.

Anonymous said...

I was born in london borough hillingdon very fae out. And I lived in south ruislip and acton. Moved when o was 4 to a snall somerset town. I dknt consider myself a londoner but when you try and tell people where you are from it is esay to say lindon. Rather to say middlsex.

Anonymous said...

I was born in Stepney, and lived in Shoreditch for 33 years . Primary, secondary, college and university education in London . I have now lived in Birmingham for five years, as I wanted to buy a house that wasn't stupidly priced . Am I still a londoner ?

Anonymous said...

The London Borough of Havering ain't in Essex, no London Borough is.