London unplugged

It’s funny the impression that people have of London and Londoners, but probably not entirely surprising, given the reliance upon media surfaces. People see Big Ben (I know, it’s really a bell), politicians in Westminster, bankers, the West End, Harrods and the Queen. They think that’s “us”. And they see our slyly self-crafted buffoon of a Mayor. Truthfully if this was London, there should be an “abandon all hope” sign at the imaginary entrances to the city.

But London isn’t one city. It’s an enormous flux surrounded by very different localities, a lot typically grimy and shitty, which yet succumb to the flux in their own ways. You see all sorts of stuff said or implied about Londoners, most of it righteously unconcerned that it is based in oblivious generalization and projection. It really doesn’t matter, but sometimes you want to say “you know some of us grew up here; we didn’t move here, we didn’t come here for big jobs, it’s just the home we had”.

Not only are there different Londons in space, but there are different Londons in time as well. The London I grew up in during the 60s and 70s is not the same London that someone would have grown up in during the 90s or now. The blue collar and immigrant Hammersmith I knew, going to sleep to the sound of ska playing up the road, is long gone. It started to get pushed out by the yuppies at the end of the 70s. I could not afford to live where I grew up now. Even the Stratford that I moved to with my sister at the end of that decade is changed from the rather sleepy, out of the way, watery suburb it was, with sodium lamps bleaching the streets orange at night.

There are a lot of things I was grateful for about London: the parks, the trees, the book shops, the cheap cafes, the museums, the music. I was glad my parents made their way here either during or after the second world war, an orphan and a refugee. That was pretty savvy of them, though we almost ended up in Reading, except the climate wasn’t good for my childhood asthma apparently (so I was told). So we ended up in west London, crumbling and much, much cheaper than nowadays. From there me and my sister could explore, and we’d get taken to Kensington Gardens by our mother. And we’d go to the museums at South Kensington.

We didn’t grow up with any sense of “class” really. My parents met at the factory they worked at (Lyon’s Cake Factory) in Olympia. My mother became a stay at home mother, augmented with some leather work later, while dad did factory work till they set up a boarding house in 1969. They came to London with virtually nothing financially, and my mother was a single parent at the time she met my father. They were in the right place at the right time in post war Britain to make something out of nothing, but they had virtually no life outside of work and raising a family. I don’t know if I could do what they did. But people did used to do it. But aside from my father having a pride in being a “working man”, there was no sense of class in the British sense. My mother didn’t like people looking down on her, but she never seemed to look back on her past in the north of England, which I think she found not only unhappy but also small minded, coming from a “broken family” in a small village. My father had come from a war torn Yugoslavia and a peasant upbringing there. He never seemed to look back either.

And then the 60s and 70s were happening. Who was going to be bothered with that shit then? Being gay, or an independent woman, had very little place in traditional class consciousness in any case in those days. I can’t say that I have grown any more fond of any kind of ideological thinking in fact. And of course I would love London on some level. There was art, and music, and occult bookshops, and places for outsiders. London is not a place for clans, and that suited me fine. When I first went to the Western USA I felt such a sense of liberation, because the British sense of class was just not there. And I loved that.

But as I said, the London I grew up in is really no more. Plus, having a disabled husband, I realized how appalling London is for the disabled. Don’t believe all that junk about “accessibility” in the capital, it’s just a joke. There are in London, I imagine, still enclaves of cheap but crumbling beauty, leafy dilapidation, where all things are mixed and nothing is quite accounted for. I hope so in any case.

But there is a lot which seems dispiritingly divided. A heritage London in the middle for the tourists and the super rich, and shit hole London for ordinary people to be too often displaced to. Only redeemed by mega shopping malls, and the medicine of high street commerce ramped up to chav nirvana. And every so often they threaten “regeneration”, which basically means regenerating the buildings, smartening things up, building more housing for yuppies, and shifting out the poor again. And London has such a transient quality in terms of population movement that it aids and abets whatever the money goes into.

We like where we live in Tower Hamlets, but we look to the “London” of glitz and government as a largely foreign city on the horizon. We have really pretty good services where we are, nice pockets of leafy good energy, places to visit within reach, the river, a museum, an art gallery, a local market. We feel safe with our Bengali and Somali neighbours, and it really is ok. And these are all Londoners that fall between generalizations, like we do. Canary Wharf may have been a totem to London capitalism, but we like seeing the pyramid at the top, lit up at night, or reflecting the sky in its surfaces. It’s become ours in spite of itself. And we have a local tatt parlour that is pretty much like family.

But of course it is true, we do suck Satan’s dick incessantly, and we are evil oppressors one and all. It’s just that we really don’t care.

Yup, we’re so pretty.

Hammersmith Palais by Russ London [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

[18th April 2014: picture changed to photo of the back of the old Hammersmith Palais.  Minor edits to 6th and 7th paragraphs.]

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2 Comments

  1. I love where you guys live, it sparked my senses the moment I got off the train. The city of London doesn’t do that – not anymore – it used to 20 years ago and that is sad. To be honest it is that way with most cities in the UK, and I imagine the world, they regenerate the old that had character and lose the spirit.

    • Thanks Jeremy, we like it too. We’re lucky to have found where we live, it has a lot of good energy, but it is basically an old part of town with some new bits built. Part of what really makes London is the trees, and the combination of leafiness, old buildings, ordinary people and families, and the enormous mix. It’s a messy, scuzzy city that needs tending in the right ways to stay healthy for people living here. A great deal of it reminds me of the London I grew up in, which ironically isn’t like this anymore

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