I was already aware of the intricacies of British culture, having lived in England previously as a history teacher at a rural boarding school, during my first year out of college. But I later moved to the capital city–working toward a Master’s degree in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics–which made that prior experience seem about as exciting as reading VCR instructions. What struck me most was London’s diversity, geographical mix, and relentless pulse.
By their very nature, cities will always be more diverse than rural communities, but London seems to stand out above the rest. On my 45-minute bus ride home from university, each day, I would regularly hear over five different languages, including regional African dialects spoken by statuesque women in fully robed regalia. My local borough (I lived in Herne Hill, near Brixton) equips its police officers with a handbook on how to approach citizens in over 20 languages. Walking from the bus stop to my house, I passed by Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Poles, and Koreans; flags waving and music blaring outside their shops and homes. All of this brought to mind a metaphor usually reserved for my native country: London is truly a great mixed salad. There is much less national identity in London, these days, as opposed to, say, during the time of Splendid Isolation–the national flag, for instance, carries very little symbolic value for most Brits, and there is no equivalent to the American “Pledge of Allegiance.” Each nationality retains its own cultural identity, merging seamlessly in the context of the professional world, while simultaneously promoting unique fashion, food, style, and slang that burst and fade in friendly competition. One can symbolically travel the world in London with merely a $3 bus pass and a good pair of shoes.
Further, while mixed-class development projects are now taking root in North America in reaction to the crumbling of inner cities, London, for the most part, avoided this structural weathering by virtue of the tragic and destructive effects of the Second World War. It was not good foresight, but rather the London Blitz, that forced the creation of an urban geography of wealthy and nonwealthy classes well-mixed along the same street. The 1940 bombing by German warplanes was indiscriminate in London, pockmarking all areas of the city with craters where once stood homes and businesses. After the war, the British government initiated the “Homes for Heroes” program to house returning veterans, transforming the rubble into massive housing estates that often rise awkwardly above Georgian and Edwardian masterpieces. Over time these individual “council flats” were sold on the market or converted to low-income housing, and now they dot the London landscape, even in the poshest suburbs and high streets (shopping areas). Proximity breeds tolerance on both sides, and as a result, the city seems relatively at ease with class differences. Moreover, visitors can walk almost anywhere in London and rarely feel their safety threatened.
All of this contributes to an underlying vibe in London that is unparalleled. At first glance, a visitor may find the city to be a dazzling display of historical sites, facades of the Old World, and relics of the Crown. But with more time and closer inspection, London emerges as that fabled Congo river boat from Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness (which begins on the River Thames, just miles from London)–having stepped aboard, and not knowing who controls the wheel, speed, or direction, we are swept downstream among the jungle’s pulse and intensity, clinging first to the safety of what we know before regaining our will and walking freely through the bright lights, markets, and hushed corners of this great city. It is everyman’s and everywoman’s city, and the best way to know it is as such–with a pub on one side, and pub on the other.
London has, for centuries, conformed to its inhabitants and the demands of the country and world, first as a commercial port, then as the political and financial capital of the British Empire, followed by a trying period of heavy industry in the early 20th century, and finally reaching its present-day service- and tourism-based economy. If you do visit London, resist the temptation to take the convenient Tube–the city’s famed subway system. Take the bus instead, at least on your first day. Instead of popping out of dark ferret holes all day, you’ll see first hand how a city of 8 million people, cramped streets, and sparkling greens manages to contract, expand, and breathe with the daily demands of modern life. After a few days in “town” you may be reminded of the graceful words of Samuel Johnson, whose penned prose still seems to emanate from every Soho storefront and Hyde Park hollow: “He who is tired of London, is tired of life.”