Saturday, April 17, 2004

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner

Spurred on by the “draft first, post later” régime, I’m currently typing this post in the park, using the laptop as it should be used, i.e. a portable computer! Will wonders never cease? So, I’m typing away with the Big Fella beside me. He’s preparing some notes on Virgil’s Aeneid which he is going to dictate to me shortly – I type much more quickly than he does, and I’ve frankly nothing better to do. This is the first day of the Easter holidays (and, ironically, the last day of the Easter holidays) where we’ve just chilled – no hauling of boxes, no moving of furniture, no taking of stuff to the dump. I have just been looking through a local job (for local people) newspaper to no avail (had I found something interesting in the newspaper, could I have said “to avail” I wonder? I’m guessing not…).

So, now you can picture the scene, here I go…

Since I’ve been back in that London and partly prompted by various comments and articles on people’s blogs, the following question has been troubling my addled brain: Who are the real Londoners? How do we define a Londoner? In fact, how do we define anyone as belonging to or being from a particular place? Is it where you’re born, where you live now, or the place where you felt most at home? Does it even matter where we’re from – isn’t it more important to think about who we are now? Lots of questions for a Witho to puzzle through…

I’ve always considered myself to be a Londoner through and through. I was born, educated, and domiciled (with a couple of interludes) in East London until about the age of 25. I’ve even got a bit of a cockney accent, bless me (though I was accused of being “posh” at secondary school – more a reflection of the kind of school I went to than of any poshness on my part…). I have been known to be rather precious about my so-called London-ness (or should that be Londonicity?), partly as a defence mechanism for people accusing me of being an Essex girl (okay, Walthamstow has borders with Essex, but I’m from the London side, honest!) but when faced with someone with, for example, a Surrey postcode, claiming to be from London - just because they had an 0181 phone number (though it may have been 081 or even 01 at that time!) I would barely be able to contain my wrath. And as for those who are blatantly born outside of London, but who moved into the big smoke for work and have put down roots here - there was a time when I’d have been most disgruntled to hear such a person describe themselves as a Londoner.

But these days I realise that it’s often these latter people who know and appreciate what we think of as London much better than I probably ever will. I happened to be born in London – that’s undeniable fact. I didn’t ask to be, I’m not particularly proud or ashamed of the fact, I certainly won’t apologise for it – it’s just the way it is. But these guys have deliberately come here – they actively seek out what London has to offer. Does that make them a Londoner? They’ve embraced London – yeah, okay, they might moan about the commute and the pollution, they might wince at the juxtaposition of the very privileged and the extremely deprived – a contrast which is more stark in London than in anywhere else I’ve been - but on balance, many of them will weigh this up against what London has to offer, and stay.

London is not just the West End, the City, the museums and galleries and the major rail termini that most people visiting will experience. There are the outer “boroughs”, where the majority of “Londoners” actually live. They’re not really different from other small towns dotted around the country, they just happen to be part of a bigger picture. Some (even many) people who were born and raised in the outer zone don’t even leave their “borough” at all – all the facilities they need are there – cinemas, supermarkets, theatres, museums…they probably won’t venture into Central London any more frequently than someone who lives outside London and comes down for a day trip shopping in Oxford Street or visiting the Tate Modern, unless they work there, though many of the City’s rich high-flyers live outside of London altogether, in the home counties or even further afield. Come to think of it, can we call these people Londoners too?

I guess what I’m saying is that my own definition of what a Londoner is has widened to encompass a much broader spectrum of people. From the homeless guy who lives under Waterloo bridge, to the Sloane Ranger in the £1m pad in Chelsea, to the graduate who moved from their home town up North to Clapham 5 years ago to work for corporation x, to Doris, who was born in Walthamstow and only ventures out of the borough for her annual holiday in Bognor Regis, all of these are Londoners. Which is why, when people say: “Londoners are x” (where x is usually a derogatory adjective), I get annoyed. Londoners are a hugely diverse group of people who have one thing in common – a connection with the huge, sprawling metropolis which is London.

Hmmm, so there...

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