News & Opinion


London is our capital – can’t we celebrate that?

The Times

September 5, 2007


“Anti-London bias manifests itself on the weather forecast by leaving ‘the South East’ to the last sweep of a hand — London is rarely mentioned by name”

This may not be the best moment to extol the virtues ofLondon. The city is halfway through a three-day Tube strike. As I write, no one knows if London will come to a standstill (any more than it usually does), or whether — more likely — it will hobble on with stories exchanged about how it’s taken five hours to get into work: two trains, bus, cab, dog sled. London frustrates its citizens even when everything’s working; when it breaks down an air of fatalism descends. This is a dysfunctional city, it has nervous breakdowns. They aren’t pleasant to negotiate but Londoners do.

The capital is a lumbering beast — and we love it that way. (Maybe not today, but most of the time.) You can always spot someone who is living here for the worst reasons — make money, go home, get up, make more money — because they complain loudest about London’s faults. “Nothing ever works,” they tut. But they take no pleasure in the astonishing range of things to do and see here. I once heard a Northerner reel off that great canard that Londoners are unfriendly, but you could tell that with his dead eyes and self-satisfied posturing he was the genuine article: a sad, miserable whinger wasting his time in one of the world’s most engaging cities. Londoners can be grumpy and selfish, but the city makes us animated at least.

Anti-London bias is everywhere; it’s anational sport, a hobby. Sneering at London, sneering at Londoners, sneering at the capital and its ways, is acceptable. The BBC is by far the worst offender: it is obsessed with whatever’s going on outside London — it has even instituted a plan to move lots of staff to Salford. Quite rightly, the corporation doesn’t want to be seen as London-centric, or London-biased. But does it really need to be so anti-London to compensate?

Every night, this manifests itself on the weather forecast by mostly leaving “the South East” to the last sweep of a hand — London is rarely mentioned by name, that would be far too pro-capital and anti the regions. All this after a leisurely, slow sweep through the South West and up the Welsh coast to “Manchester” and “Glasgow” and “Aberdeen” and back through “Newcastle” and “Leeds” . . . What would happen if the forecaster said “London” one day? Maybe the fear is that his or her expression would break into a massive grin, that they wouldn’t be able to contain themselves. “It’s sunny and 23 degrees in LONDON, where all the interesting people live and it’s FABULOUS.”

As for the BBC’s great London-set soap, EastEnders, it inhabits a Cockney dream version of the city: a real Albert Square house would sell for around £750,000-£1 million and the Vic would be a gastropub entirely populated by creative types and bankers. London is derided for its elitism — but this is where the banks and big institutions are; it’s where the action is; the best in art and culture, the money, the big-time, the freaks and posers and dreamers. It’s where the elite’s going to be. It’s “violent”, you hear, but violent crime blooms across all parts of the country, most recently in Liverpool with the horrific murder of Rhys Jones. I feel far safer on a London street at any time of the day or night than I do in other English cities and small towns, with their regenerated — read cavernous and illconceived — centres, full of mega-pubs and an air of violence.

London is the capital of this nation and it should be celebrated as such. It will host the Olympics in 2012, it is a constant source of delight and mystery, and it is ferocious and uncompromising. It is the political, financial and cultural powerhouse of Britain. The country’s metropolitan cities, no matter the benevolent regard paid to them by the BBCand other bodies, cannot hold a candle to the capital; and it’s absurd to pretend otherwise.

The Great North Run is not the London Marathon; for brassy department stores Harrods and Harvey Nicks in Knightsbridge will always kick ass over the likes of that hideous Selfridges monstrosity in Birmingham. London has a myriad of theatres, hundreds of cinemas, every cuisine imaginable, every culture, every melting pot. Where else would you have contests like the one for London Mayor, featuring a controversial lefty who likes newts, set against a toff with an unbeatable track record in causing offence? Where do Hollywood stars go when they come to the UK? Where can you have a coffee and cake at 4am, as every kind of street-life streams past? London.

Time Out, the capital’s weekly listings magazine, has taken to celebrating the capital most volubly with brilliant, witty pieces on its history and stuff like strange things overheard on the Underground: “Harry Potter is way better than the Bible”; “If you don’t know what BJ means, ask your mum”.

Ultimately, it is London’s geography that makes it great (or, at least distinct). Buy Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography or Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane, or Sarah Waters’s novels, including Fingersmith or The Night Watch. All of these writers evoke, pungently, the seamy and labyrinthine histories of the capital’s thoroughfares and communities. Waters told me once that she pounded the streets to evoke them correctly and pored over maps in libraries to get the now-extinct ones right.

That’s the key to London, especially this difficult week: walk it. The persistence of history, seen most immediately on foot, is one of the most alluring things about this city — even though the capital keeps recasting itself with new buildings and diversions all the time. A remorseless palimpsest, it’s a mess but it makes sense. It isn’t a dreary grid like New York. It isn’t clean. It isn’t quiet. It’s a city which changes its shape, but not its nature. It drives you mad but — even with the transport system creaking towards disaster as it is this week — it seduces you over and over again.


The shame of another scandal

Larry Craig is in, as they say, a strange place. He has resigned as Idaho’s Republican senator after allegedly trying to solicit sex from another man — unfortunately for him, an undercover police officer — in a Minneapolis airport toilet. “I apologise for what I have caused,” he says. He maintains he is not gay, though concedes: “I have little control over what people choose to believe.” The ex-senator has a record of opposing gay rights. Not many tears are being shed.

There is something depressing that politicians and public figures (recall the Lord Browne imbroglio in May) can be bought down by such a scandal, though — brutally — if both men had been honest in the first place, would they have been so vulnerable? I volunteer for the helpline London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (020-7837 7324). Some of the most moving calls are from men and women, many older, who are too scared to come out. Fear, shame, circumstance — even a clotted mixture of all three — eat away. One colleague points out that some men who engage in gay sex don’t define what they’re doing as “gay” because they’re married or perceive themselves as straight. They separate the sex act from their sexual identity. One hopes these men are having safer sex with all their partners (and don’t end up looking as silly as ex-Senator Craig).


Nuts about cuts

Chief rottweilers Paxman and Humphrys are concerned about budget cuts on Newsnight and Today. Humphrys says that BBC chiefs should consider axeing one of the digital channels, BBC Three or BBC Four, instead. (What? No more Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps? Nooooo.) However, Humphrys doesn’t address the question he put to Paxman on Today when Paxman sounded off about declining broadcasting standards — in a nutshell: If you feel so strongly, how about taking a pay cut?