Mark Neville for The New York Times
By CRAIG TAYLOR
Published: March 1, 2012
Later this year, thousands of Olympians will march into Londonunder flapping flags, and the global TV audience will be treated to a romanticized version of the city, with helicopter shots of Big Ben competing for time against footage of Buckingham Palace guards staring stone-faced into the distance and double-decker buses bouncing unsteadily through too-narrow streets. By the end of the ceremonies, you’ll have seen the city’s bridges so many times that you’ll wish they had all fallen down years ago.
The overall impression these images are meant to give off is that London, for all its recent convulsions, is a city that remains preserved in its past, obsessed with its royals (the queen will celebrate her diamond jubilee in June) and populated by the type of cheeky folks mythologized in those postwar BBC social documentaries and kept alive by the likes of Guy Ritchie’s tired gangster clichés. Not Londoners. Lahndannahs.
But London in 2012, like most other global cities, is in significant flux, much less beholden to sepia-tinged notions of what it used to be and much more a product of its new arrivals. Over the last decade, the foreign-born population reached 2.6 million, just about a third of the city. In addition to longstanding Irish, Indian, Jamaican and Bangladeshi communities, there are now many new immigrants from Nigeria, Slovenia, Ghana, Vietnam and Somalia. I’ve seen Russians fly in on their private jets, and Eastern Europeans breach the city limits in cars filled to the roof with suitcases and potted plants.
The changing population has inspired a certain amount of nativism in the city, sometimes good-natured, sometimes less so. There are those who believe that true Londoners are cockneys, and to be one of those you must be born within earshot of Bow Bells. Or: True Londoners are born within the ring of the M25 motorway. Others think that all it takes to be a Londoner is to have lived here for a great deal of time — at least 70 years, or 52 years, or 8 years, or, in one case, just over a month. “But it was a very good month,” this new Londoner told me, fresh from the north of England. “I’ve totally forgotten Macclesfield.”
True Londoners are extinct, another person told me. Foreigners can’t be Londoners, a British National Party campaigner said one Saturday afternoon on Hampstead High Street, before recounting a moving story of his own father’s journey from Cyprus to London and the way this shell-shocked man was welcomed into the city. A true Londoner would never support Manchester United, I was told. “The only thing I know” — and this was uttered in a very loud pub in Cricklewood — “is that a real Londoner would never, ever, ever eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody Steakhouses in the West End. That’s how you tell,” the man said, steadying himself with a hand on the bar. “That’s how you tell.”
No one is just a Londoner. You quickly discover which part of the city suits your temperament. West London, one woman said, was “too brittle” for her. South Londoners hate going north. North Londoners forget there’s a south beyond the South Bank. Years ago, when I moved from Highbury to Clapham, north to south, my slightly grand landlady took a drag from her cigarette and said: “I used to have friends who lived south of the river. Whatever happened to them?”
For all their differences, the neighborhoods are a bit of a jumble. The rich parts of town aren’t as hermetic as they first appear. One night I accompanied a police officer around Islington, North London, and as he drove his unmarked car past all the tony houses, he said: “We’ve got two extremes, affluence and poverty, and there isn’t the separation people might imagine. If I had the money, I wouldn’t live there if you gave me the house for half the price. I know what’s on the doorstep.”
Even the East, with its celebrated heritage, has changed and changed again. A funeral director named John Harris, who inherited the family business, remembered his own not-far-off past, in which if you were born in the East End, you died in the East End, and then you were given the grand procession that was an East End funeral — complete with horses and the name of the deceased spelled out in floral tribute. “The working classes,” he said, “you had to go out with some style.” Now he provides space for the traditional washing at Hindu and Sikh funerals, watches over the all-night vigils of the Filipino community, stores ashes for the Chinese and arranges extravagant funerals for the GhanaiansThe London of the past decade felt stable. Why else had the Russian billionaires come here to buy football clubs and newspapers? Why else did the Saudis descend on Knightsbridge? The equation seemed to be working — until suddenly it wasn’t. The riots last summer didn’t so much spread from one neighborhood to the next; they blossomed in disparate parts of the city. Older conservatives blamed the youth; the youth blamed other youth. It was always someone else, but the people in the grainy YouTube videos weren’t invaders at all.
“I certainly didn’t expect this in London,” said Nick Smith, a television executive. During the riots, he stepped off a bus in South London and saw 15 people rattling the metal shutters of a Foot Locker. “The people I saw, they didn’t come from another country. They were the people who would, on any other day, be sitting next to me on the bus. They were smashing up shops.”
“You can’t cut the defiance out of London,” a university student said at a pub near the Strand, where protesters had stacked placards near the door during another of the recent protests against higher tuition fees. “There are people in London here who look at Beijing with great envy. To be able to call in the tanks, to be able to push people around. ‘Oh, the things we could do if we never had to worry about the streets.’ As if that was not the most important thing about this place. As if London was anything other than a place of defiance, a staging ground.”
But London’s uneasy alchemy is also what gives the city its propulsion. “The Games will be fine, and there’ll be a lovely opening ceremony, and there’ll be a lovely closing ceremony,” a theater director told me at a cafe in Holborn when I asked her about the Olympics. “Some things will work and plenty of things won’t work, and somehow that combination of the working and not working is what gives it a particular energy and a particular life. If everything worked, it would be like Canberra. It would be dead in the water. And if nothing worked, it would be a third-world country, like Haiti. But this combination of not being able to get everything to work that we say will work seems to (make London) more appealing, perhaps, than a well-run, efficient city.
“I mean, if you’re always striving for success, you end up with something like America, and nobody,” she said, smiling, “wants to be like America, really.”
Craig Taylor is the author of ‘‘Londoners,’’ which was published last month.