Having just had yet another friendly, twenty minute conversation with a total stranger on a London bus, I take exception to a Guardian Comment is Free piece I read earlier this week ("Yes, London is an unfriendly city - and long may it stay that way"). To give you the gist of the article by Stuart Heritage (not a hotel chain after all, but actually a person), I'll sum it up as follows: isn't it brilliant that Londoners are hostile and unsmiling to strangers? Thank God I've escaped the provinces where folk know one another's names and pry into my life by saying annoying things like 'Hello!' and 'Good morning!'. I've come to the big city to realise my big ambitions and rid myself of those awful little people who make eye contact, beam warmly and say 'How are you?' while I'm crossing the street to avoid them.
Well, I tried. I tried to hold back and avoid joining in the comments section. Comments sections frighten me and reading them feels like staring at a car crash. But I failed and ended up chiming in on Facebook (one safe remove away, or so I thought, from the Guardian's own comment section). "Born Londoners are actually rather friendly", I typed. "It's the blow-ins that aren't". I was swiftly accused of both xenophobia and elitism, so I had to clarify. Londoners come in every race and creed imaginable. As a peoples, we provide safe haven to thousands fleeing the country's repressed and homophobic backwoods. What could be more friendly than that? And with some exceptions (I'm rather iffy about the super-rich absentees buying up central London), I welcome the people who move here from other countries, particularly non-Anglophone ones. They make London what it is and are generally very friendly. I regard them, without question, as fellow Londoners. But there is a certain type of person who moves here from another part of Britain, affects an air of unfriendliness because he (or she) thinks that that is what you do in London, and is actually proud of his (or her) hostility and gross superciliousness. Yuck. And when I used the mildly unfriendly term 'blow-in', I was referring to them. I was also more than a little irked with the author for making lofty, sweeping pronouncements on behalf of all Londoners as though a) he is one and b) he is in some way representative of us.
Now I have to put my hands up and admit to a prejudice (I have more than a few, and owning up to them is halfway towards overcoming them) - Yes, I am prejudiced against those who move to London from the parts of the country that aren't London. My prejudice has a few strands to it. One is a double standard I've become creepingly aware of over a number of years. We Londoners are incredibly polite to incomers. We don't even disabuse them when they announce themselves as 'Londoners' within a week of arriving. And this is the double standard; if I were to pitch up in Birmingham, Liverpool or Glasgow and call myself Brummie, a Scouser or Glaswegian, I'd be laughed at, even if I'd lived there for ten years. Actually, that's wrong. I'd have my teeth kicked in and be forced to swallow half of them. The accepting embrace that London extends to all-comers is simply not reciprocated. Anywhere. In Cornwall, we'd be called 'grockles' and 'emmets' until we'd been there for five generations. The cliché of locals with blood-stained pitchforks, shouting, "Get of my land!" as we cower in fright is actually true - it just comes in a variety of guises. I've bitten my tongue long enough on this point, but enough. No more can I contain it, the raging sense of unfairness and poor form. Londoners are constantly accused of ruining whole villages because of our second homes, pricing locals out of their own housing markets. The opposite is in fact the case - it's the millions descending on London who drive rents sky-high, forcing Londoners into the outermost realms of the city and beyond, to Surrey and Essex. Of the 'Londoners' who do have second homes in the country, the overwhelming majority are people who've moved to London rather than come from it. It's a crucial distinction. One of the rarely spoken requirements for being a Londoner is never to have tried to be one (with the exception of the delightful Londoners from overseas, who are to be cherished).
This double standard is echoed by another one. TV dramas set in London routinely feature a variety of characters whose voices clearly identify them as Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and northern. And that's as it should be (though it might be nice if the odd London character was allowed a look-in, besides Eastenders). But when it comes to dramas set outside London - Shetland, for example, which recently returned for a second series - well, then it's bare-faced uni-culturalism all the way. Not a south London accent of which to speak - almost every single character comes from, er, Shetland. To go on, which other capital is expected constantly to apologise for itself? Accusations of being London-centric drove the BBC from London to Salford. But the whole point of a capital city is to be an administrative centre for the whole country. So why we should be expected to grovel and express remorse for who we are is beyond me. Why is it OK for the Beeb to be Salford-centric, if it was so wrong of it to be London-centric?
And yet and yet and yet...now comes the tricky part. It really is a prejudice. I owe it to myself and others to challenge and overcome it. Much as I love reading Julie Burchill, I don't have the gall to take a brutally uncompromising stance and stick to it the way she does. I realise that huge numbers of the people who move to London from elsewhere in Britain are adorable. My own mother is one and so are scores of my friends, acquaintances and beloved cousins. I don't really wish to suggest that Londoner status be withheld from them. And, yes, I am aware of my own hypocrisy in defending the friendliness of Londoners while berating others in unfriendly and indignant tones. At one point, I was worried enough about this prejudice to mention it to a therapist from Moscow. She told me not to worry, that lots of people from capital cities, herself included, feel the same. We grow up to discover that seemingly everyone else wants to move to where we're from, tell us how proud they are of where they come from (you've hardly voted with your feet, though, have you?), and actively dislike us at every turn. Or so it sometimes feels. Forgive me my vitriol - we all need to cough up a bit now and then.
Just as I was recovering from the outrage described above, I was reminded of the week's other most annoying incomer (sorry, 'Londoner'). Yes, it's Michael Gove, who has ensured that his name is forever linked, however implausibly, with the concept of 'hot sex'. I suppose I shouldn't mind if he really thinks that my fellow Londoners and I are more passionate and attractive than other people and that it is our refulgent beauty and vigorous sexuality which compels people to move here. But really, we do have other attributes. And Michael Gove, like so many politicians, is a good example of the kind of London-dweller I find so off-putting - the kind who moves here in order to be important. This brings me back to the beginning. Londoners really are friendly, but those who move here because of an overweening love of glory/money (they like to call it 'ambition'), whose material acquisitiveness and pathalogical career-obsession are boundless and sociopathic, are not. And, to conclude, one little, friendly request: when you ask me where I'm from and I say 'London', please stop responding, 'No, but where are you from originally?'. Got that? Thanks.
Final nuisance of the week was Jessie J (from Chadwell Heath, a part of London only since the 1960s, making Ms J a Londoner of the 'kind of' variety) who apparently finds the label 'bisexual' so appalling she's seen fit to enlist the press in order to shrug it off. Both Bolan and Bowie did the 'I'm bisexual, no I'm not' dance with much more charm, while also being prettier. As an arch manipulator of image (and media), Jessie J will have been perfectly aware of the likely interpretation of her remarks. She has, quite knowingly, given credence to the idea that we can, on a daily basis, casually decide which sexuality to opt for. Try telling that to the millions of people who face imprisonment and/or death because of their sexuality. Are they really just being silly, stubbornly clinging to their chosen sexuality when they could, apparently quite easily, simply evade persecution by changing it?Suggest a correction