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…