Until this year, I lived almost all of my life in one or other district of London, starting in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, which were then working class districts of South-East London. Then there was a gap, when my Dad moved us to Bexley, which was then in Kent but is now a London Borough. I later moved back to Clapham, then to Wandsworth, when I married. Going up in the World, so we believed, we moved the short distance to Wimbledon, where I stayed until 1985, when I moved back to Rotherhithe, specifically the part known as Surrey Docks. This was no longer just a working class district, as the regeneration of Docklands had radically changed both the area, and the people that lived there. After many years there, I eventually found myself in Camden Town, the now fashionable area just North of London’s West End, where I stayed for 12 years, until moving to Norfolk. So, I had lived in South East, South West, and North London, missing out only the extremes of the East and West at either end.
For those of you who do not know London, it must be said that it is a vast place. From Barnet in the North, to Croydon in the South, is a road distance of almost 24 miles, and from Dagenham in the East, to Hounslow in the West, nearly 30 miles. This is an area of 720 miles, all heavily built-up, with an incredibly dense population, and severe traffic problems. That population is very diverse, with inhabitants from almost every country in the World, speaking hundreds of different languages, and bringing their own cultures to the areas where they have chosen to settle. Yet Londoners are also strangers in their own, forbidding city. Many rarely leave the areas in which they live, except to commute to work, or seek entertainment.
Crossing the Thames from one side to the other is usually done underground, on the vast tube network, as using a car in the central area is a waste of time, and parking is at a premium, day or night. Most buses run the full 24 hours, and can be a good way of getting around, providing you know in which direction to take one in the first place. Only tourists sit in the front seats upstairs though, it just isn’t cool. And you don’t talk to anyone, unless you have to, it just isn’t done. No point asking directions anyway, as chances are the person you ask will either not speak English, or be as lost as you are.
It is just too big. As a result, Londoners have learned to live in the districts, turning them into small villages inside the Metropolis, each with a unique character. Street markets still thrive, though it is doubtful you would ever see them, as only the locals would know where they are. I am not referring to Camden Market, or Petticoat Lane, as these are on the tourist trail; I mean the old London markets, such as East Street, Roman Road, and Chapel street, where crowds still flock to do ‘normal’ shopping.
The original London, The City, is a place all to itself. Housing the financial district, St Paul’s cathedral, and The Barbican, it is self-governing, self-policing, and packed full of fascinating history at every turn. Teeming with workers during the day, it becomes almost uninhabited after dark, and at weekends, and eerily quiet, except for the small area in and around Smithfield meat market. Names you may have heard but that meant nothing to you, like Tottenham, Fulham, or Hendon, are in fact areas that are busier than most large towns in Britain, with a population to equal those too. Some Londoners live all of their lives in one or other of these areas, without ever feeling the need to travel around, or to move house; some because they have no choice, others from preference. There are districts associated with rich people, and expensive houses, like Chelsea, Kensington, or Hampstead. In reality, they are home to large numbers of ordinary working people also, and many were formerly the poorest areas of the Capital.
The River Thames is more than a river flowing through a major city. It defines your part in London Life. Whether you live North or South of it, what bridge or tunnel you use to cross it, views from bridges or embankments from one side or the other, and the iconic buildings and areas lining its banks, the Thames is everything to London. The former docks and wharves that were once the lifeblood of the Capital, providing its very reason for existence, and employment for a large part of the population, are now long gone. They have been replaced with pleasant walkways and open spaces, such as The South Bank, or attractive riverside dwellings, out of the financial reach of most of the inhabitants. It is cleaner, and the views along the river are better as a result, though I am not convinced it is really an improvement. Riverboats still ply their trade up and down the Thames, but these days, they are for tourism and entertainment only, as the few commercial ships that you see will be taking London’s rubbish to be dumped somewhere.
The once bustling pubs with river frontages, are now offering nouvelle cuisine, and welcoming coach parties of Japanese tourists, to enjoy a taste of ‘Real London’. Still, there are now cormorants fishing off the piers, and fish such as salmon have found their way back to the shadow of Tower Bridge, so that is something to be thankful for, I suppose. And there are the bridges. They are mostly spectacular, and something that I genuinely miss. London at night is enhanced by its bridges. There is the simply unequalled Tower Bridge, which still occasionally rises, to let large vessels pass, and the great concrete slab of Waterloo Bridge, which has always afforded the best view of London from anywhere in the centre. Further West, the bridges of Albert, Battersea, and Chelsea, illuminated by hundreds of lights, give a fairground appearance to their surroundings. If you ever visit London, make sure to take the long walk along the embankment from East to West, as the dozen or more bridges you will see on your way (there are more of course, but you will not walk that far) will tell you as much about London as anything else you may discover.
Religion is well catered for, though many of the ‘ordinary’ Londoners are far from religious beings. There are numerous Synagogues, catering for the large Jewish population, of almost 200,000. More recently, Mosques have appeared all over the City, including the grand and imposing main London Mosque, just inside Regent’s Park. There are Protestant and Catholic churches in abundance, including large cathedrals, as well as smaller churches of every denomination you could think of. The Hindu Temple in Neasden is worth the long trip North-West, as the building is stunning, and all are welcome there. There are places of worship for Hare Krishna devotees, Quakers, Mormons, and of course, Jehovah Witnesses. Alternative religions are well catered for too, and you will find the offices of Scientologists, Christadelphians, and even the Secular Society, for agnostics. For a City that seems to have put religion aside, it is exceptionally well served, nonetheless.
For most visitors to London, whether foreign tourists, or Britons attending a sporting event, or going to see a show, it is only the centre that they experience. The Theatre District, Chinatown, Soho, Oxford Street, or the large parks. For Londoners, these are communities too. Only yards away from the strip clubs and gay bars of Soho, lives a community that has existed for centuries. Social housing, deprived conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment, all cheek-by-jowl with wine bars, night clubs, and theatres showing the latest big musical. You only have to listen to the constant sirens, or attend a hospital A&E department, to realise that something other than entertainment and shopping is really going on all around you.
You cannot ever hope to understand London unless you live there. You don’t have to actually be a Londoner, as I am. In fact, a minority of the inhabitants of London actually originate from there. It is a magnet for the whole country, as well as the World outside the U.K. There are as many Irish people there as can be found in Dublin, and Scottish accents are as familiar to Londoners as cockney ones. It could be argued that ‘real’ locals are dying out, as they move to the suburbs, escaping unaffordable housing, or just trying to get away from the hustle and bustle. But London has always had a diverse population, since the Romans first bridged the Thames, so it is more accurate to realise that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ Londoner; residence is the only qualification.
This is the City of my youth, my middle age, and the very thing that defines me. Though I no longer live there, I have no doubt that I will always be perceived to be, and to feel inside, a Londoner.