Not so long ago, late one evening, a man who lives on our street in north London hammered on the front door. It was my 18-year-old son who heard him and opened it. Rather breathlessly, the man – whom my son didn’t recognise – explained he had nearly been mugged and had headed for the nearest front door to get away from his would-be assailants.
After waiting a few minutes in our hall, it appeared the muggers had disappeared, so he went on his way.
The next night, he came back. This time, he was carrying a bottle of red wine, by way of thanks for the previous night. My son opened the door again, gratefully accepted the wine, and they had a bit of a chat. It didn’t occur to him to ask the man’s name or which number he lived at on our (not very long) street.
For me, this episode (the attempted mugging bit aside, obviously) encapsulates everything I love about my adoptive home town (of which more, later).
There was a moment when, as a fairly disaffected teen living at home in Reading, Berkshire, I realised the only place I ever wanted to live was London. It wasn’t the sights, or the shops, or even the fact that so many of the punk bands we wanted to see played here. It was the green Mohican. I was on a busy bus heading back to Paddington station, when a youth, in full punk regalia and foot-high green plumage, got on – and no one took the slightest bit of notice of him. Not one eyelid was batted. This, I remember thinking, is the place for me. Not because I wanted green spiky hair, but because I wanted to live somewhere no one would care if I did. Having seen my mum tell my sister to move out after she came home with an afro perm (for fear of what the neighbours would say), it felt like liberation.
In Reading in those days, anyone outlandish or unconventional would get stares at best, a good kicking from the New Town Boys at worst. The NTB were local hard nuts, who lived around Cemetery Junction – the area featured in the Ricky Gervais film of the same name (although the filmatic version bears no resemblance…). A bit like skins, with crombies and DMs but longer hair, the NTB thought it only their duty to beat non-conformity out of anyone they happened upon.
In London, I was delighted to discover, even the most ludicrous hairstyle wasn’t enough to warrant a second glance, let alone a punch in the face.
It may be that places like Reading have changed in the last 30 years, but perhaps not as much as you might think.
When I was growing up, an elderly man who lived two doors down, put up a sign in his front garden berating the man opposite for regularly parking his car outside his house. On a public road. Not blocking his drive way, or anything. Just parked outside, entirely legally. It probably didn’t help our neighbour’s temper that the family opposite were Asian – still a rarity in that area at the time.
I was reminded of this on a recent visit to the close where my mum now lives, when one of her neighbours came out to say I couldn’t park directly opposite his drive. I was more amused than annoyed (displaying characteristic Londoner tolerance); explained I hadn’t realised he owned the road, and meekly parked elsewhere. (In fairness, he did have the good grace to apologise to my mum subsequently for being a bit of a prat.)
So what is it about the doorstep incident that cheers me so much?
I love the fact that that the man knew he could call at our door for help, even though he didn’t know us from Adam (or vice versa). I love it that my otherwise streetwise son’s instinct was to open the door to someone in apparent distress. Although not unaware it might be a scam (and we have had plenty of those…), the desire to help overrode other worries. I love it that the man was sweet enough to bring wine, and the fact he went out to buy it the next night, rather than sitting at home worrying about getting mugged again. And I particularly love the fact that, although both wanted to acknowledge they’d done the other a good turn, neither my son or the man felt the need to go crazy and act as if they were now best buddies and ask the other’s name or anything…..
People criticise London for its anonymity, but that is also its greatest strength. With anonymity comes acceptance, tolerance, and suspension of judgement, all qualities which, in my (possibly atypical) experience, tend to be in shorter supply outside the capital.
Vince Cable, the business secretary, recently said London was ‘draining life out of the rest of the country,’ oblivious to the fact that the capital is creating the kind of life for some people that is just not possible elsewhere. No wonder, one in three 22-30 year olds who move city, move to London. The only surprise to me is that when they hit their 30s and start families, 60% of Londoners move out to the ‘burbs. Maybe it’s (largely unwarranted) fears about London schools that does it, but why anyone would want to deprive their children of the chance of growing up in one of the best, most divese cities in the world, I cannot imagine.
When I see the class photo of the daughter of friends who live two hours up the M1, and it is a sea of white faces, I feel faintly depressed and slightly claustrophobic. When I hear the father say their holiday hotel was run by ‘two poofs,’ I reflect that the word ‘poofs’ has probably not been uttered in polite society in north London in 30 years.
As the roll call of dead emerged after 7/7, mixed with shock and outrage was very real pride, that people from so many different countries and cultures, had chosen this magnet of a city as their home, and been rubbing along in the same tube train. The week after the bombings, the cover of Timeout magazine read: ‘London Carries On.’ And, of course, being Londoners, we did. (And, if UKIP leader Nigel Farage feels ‘slightly awkward‘ only hearing foreign voices, may I suggest he stops taking up valuable space on rush-hour trains out of Charing Cross and buggers off back to the 1950s.)
What some perceive as Londoners’ unfriendliness, I would characterise as keeping our noses out where they’re not wanted. Where help is obviously needed, it tends to be forthcoming. The friendliness of the 2012 Olympics was not an aberration, but London doing what it mostly does. Anyone who travels by bus – and invariably witnesses people springing up to offer a seat if someone pregnant, or with a walking stick gets on – can testify to that. Just this week, a friend over from Paris (only two-and-a-bit hours by Eurostar…), who was making a pig’s ear of getting through the Arsenal tube barrier with her suitcase, had two Underground staff instantly at her side offering joshing assistance (while I waited further ahead shouting, ‘Get a grip, woman!’)
Obviously, London isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The journalist Ian Jack recently compared London’s ‘noisy, febrile and decadent’ restaurants (I think it was meant to be a criticism) unfavourably with one he had just visited in Belgium, which was ‘full of middle-class and middle-aged-to-elderly people in forgettable clothes’. Each to their own. What sounds to me like a geriatric ward – quiet, men in white aprons, elderly people eating ‘potato soup and cod’ – is Ian’s idea of a good night out. That’s absolutely fine, Ian. I am a Londoner, and I Do Not Judge (even though you’re wrong).
I am of course horribly biased. All the best things in my life, have happened to me in London: studying, working, meeting my husband (who also grew up in the sticks, and had a map of the Underground on his bedroom wall), setting up home, getting married, having children, the opportunity to forge friendships with all manner of fine folk.
London is not Nirvana. But Londoners should take pride in the fact that, in the main, we don’t care if you’re gay or straight, or somewhere in between. We don’t care if you’re black or white. I’d be lying if I said we’d got to a state of indifference towards transgender people, but I’d like to think we’re starting to get there (thanks in no small part to my good friends at All About Trans), and I’m prepared to bet we’ll do so before anywhere else in the UK. We absolutely don’t care if you keep your front garden tidy (should you be lucky enough to have one), and feel free to park outside my house any time. On a good day, we don’t even care what class you’re from. If you’re here, you’re one of us, and you’re very, very welcome. Just don’t expect us to make eye contact on the tube.