Each month, our new column will look at life in one of the five capital cities of "these islands." As this is Prospect's London month, we start in the old imperial capitalby Simon Jenkins / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
London is the world’s top city, so it is shouted from the rooftops. Back in the 1980s boom, when London “boosterism” was first emerging after decades of the British disease, an American immigrant told me that there was only one reason the world was rushing to colonise the place. It was because being a Londoner was like living not in a city, but in a small town like he had known back home.
Only recently has London even referred to itself as a city rather than a town. It was never planned, laid out, formalised or, until the 20th century, governed as a civic unity. London was spared Paris’s Haussmann, Vienna’s Ringstrasse and Manhattan’s gridplan. It simply sprawled outwards, engulfing villages, landed estates and suburbs in one multifarious settlement. The Hanoverian monarchs, as local landowners, were church wardens at St Martin-in-the-Fields. When Karl Marx moved his family to Walthamstow, he found to his astonishment that he had to do service as a vestry constable. The rubric “a city of villages,” which survives to this day, was a misnomer and yet a potent one.
I have lived variously in Camden Town, Upper Norwood, Pimlico, Crouch End, Earls Court and Primrose Hill. Most Londoners would recognise these places as geographical personalities, even if they never visited them. London’s topography is not of its administrative boroughs but of Kentish Town, Crystal Palace, Hampstead, Pimlico, Battersea, Stepney, Rotherhithe. My village of Primrose Hill possesses the essential components of an urban village: high street, parish church, square, clinic, council flats, primary school and a branch library. Yet it possesses no shred of self-government. To government it is a postcode, no more.
There is a certain tweeness to the application of the word “village” to these neighbourhoods. Writers such as Colin Ward and Jonathan Raban have pointed out that people emigrate from villages to the city specifically to escape the narrowness of village life. They are not seeking people but escaping them, yearning for the privacy that comes from numbers—the intimacy of the lonely crowd.
We all recognise this. In 30 years of living in the same part of London, I cannot pretend to know half my neighbours, even those within 100 yards of me. I doubt if many Londoners do. Cities are not about neighbourliness in the sense that the country is. They are networks of dispersed affinity. They offer familiarity and privacy in equal measure across a metropolis.
The canvas of Dickens’s London novels, like those of Trollope, Gissing, Conan Doyle or, more recently, Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair and Blake Morrison is city-wide. Morrison’s new novel, South of the River, evokes London’s neglected southern flank, yet it merely glances at this compass point before launching its characters on to the great wen.
Some sense of village London is evoked by the old working-class communities, and by the immigrants replicating the real villages of the Punjab or Bangladesh. Yet even their inhabitants, newly arrived in the capital, regard the symbol of success as breaking away from the village template. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane depict their characters as straining to escape the ghetto and define themselves as proper Londoners.
Yet for all this, the village metaphor retains its appeal. Whenever London’s neighbourhoods fail, as in the intermittent riots of the late 20th century, local leadership seems to have failed, as recently with the growth of knife crime. The social geography of neighbourhood—whether expressed through street, church, school or club—does matter. When the social glue dissolves, there is no framework of discipline to which citizens can turn, as they can in most provincial communities. When studying the London drug culture a decade ago, I noticed that in some parts of the city, neighbourhoods were wholly anarchic. Apart from the police there was nobody, certainly no elected figures, to whom people could turn for help. Yet elsewhere—in Stepney and New Cross, for instance—a sort of rough law had been established over time, much as in the precincts of early New York. Drug dealing was a cottage industry, with its own hierarchy and loyalty.
Whatever name they go by, the so-called villages of London are the building blocks of its urban cohesion and civility. Their inhabitants, however non-participant in “village” life, declare a fierce loyalty to their neighbourhood. It is where they live and declare their identity. Yet these places enjoy no local administrative status. My village is not even allowed its own elected councillor, but must share with three from neighbouring areas of quite different character. We cannot pay for our clinic, library, flowers, parks or street lighting. That is why London local election turnouts are stuck around the 30 per cent mark, against double that in most cities on the continent.
New York’s business improvement districts are not allowed in London. Nor are Birmingham’s urban parishes. Sub-civic leadership of the sort familiar in Germany, France or Scandinavia is simply not a facet of London life. London’s local government is that of the anonymous boroughs created as bureaucratic convenience in the 1960s. London the city of villages would be more accurately described as a city of colonies.