Denean Rowe: Words, music, movies and a London identity

Denean Rowe: Words, music, movies and a London identity

What makes someone feel like a Londoner? In a city of nine million people there are nine million answers to that question. Last year Centre for London explored the extent to which people sign up to a London identity and found that it’s as strong now as it was 40 years ago, despite rapid population growth since the early 1990s.

As a lifelong Londoner myself, I’ve seen waves of people move in, out and around this city, yet the feeling of “being a Londoner” seems to be easy to acquire. People who live in London identify with the places that make up their neighbourhoods like Brixton, Hackney or Notting Hill. But this identity is also reinforced by popular culture – books, films, songs – which celebrate different aspects of London’s character and inform our understanding of the city. 

If you’re new to London and want to get a good grasp of what it means to be a Londoner, here are my top things to read, watch and listen to:

Film

When London is featured in a film it can be a great way for people from outside the city to get an idea of what it’s like to live here and the different types of people that call London “home”. Two examples stand out for me: Kidulthood and About Time.

Kidulthood is a coming of age film, set in Notting Hill, Latimer Road and Ladbroke Grove. These areas of London are right next to each other but couldn’t be more different. The film gives the viewer an idea of what it’s like to live on the cusp of such an expensive and gentrified part of London, without necessarily reaping any of the benefits. 

About Time is one of Richard Curtis’ many films that are set in London. In this film, you get to see lots of different parts of London, which is quite rare. There is a long-held joke that Londoners “don’t cross the river” and so I’m used to watching films based in one small part of the city. But this film shows off Dans Le Noir in Farringdon where the two main characters go for their first date, Tate Britain, Queen’s Park, Kensal Green and even Maida Vale station. 

Literature

White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s debut novel and it describes London beautifully. You get to learn about different immigrant experiences from the perspective of Samad Iqbal (a first generation Bangladeshi Muslim man) and Clara Bowden (a first-generation Jamaican woman). As well as the experience of their second-generation children all living in the same area of North West London. The characters speak in a mixture of slang, mostly of Jamaican patois origin and English with a London twang. The characters sound very much like my Mother who grew up in Jamaica and the people I grew up with in South West and South East London. This book explores the difficulties of being born in London but feeling strong ties to your parent’s home, even though you didn’t grow up there; feelings which are all familiar to me.

Music

Often, songs about people’s hometowns are romanticised. Adele’s single, Hometown Glory breaks that mould. She reminds us of all the different types of people who make up London. “I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts and shades, I like it in the city when two worlds collide, you get the people and the government, everybody taking different sides”. This rings very true for me. 

When Pulp released the song Common People I was seven years old, so the people in the song didn’t make much sense to me. It was only when I was older and my social group shifted that I began to connect with the song. I felt like parts of London, like Brixton, Hackney and Peckham, had changed. They became more middle class, and the communities that made these places home seemed to have dispersed.

The student from St Martin’s College in Common People, who is middle-class but thinks it’s cool to slum it in deprived areas, made me think a lot about gentrification and how some parts of London are now out of reach to Londoners. I know that many people had to move further south from Brixton to Croydon, Merton or even Surrey because of rising property prices. And Hackney (specifically Dalston), once notorious for knife crime and pickpocketing, even to people like me, born and bred Londoners, seems to have changed with the increasing transport links and ongoing regeneration in the area.

Lastly, is Eddy Grant’s song Electric Avenue. This song was released in the early 80s and was inspired by the Brixton riots in 1981. Brixton has had periods of unease. When I was growing up and spending a lot of time there, the Houses of Parliament, even though they were less than half an hour by bus, couldn’t have felt further away. A lot of people were struggling and there were definitely some areas that people were more wary of, but whenever I hear the funk and reggae beats in that song, I know exactly what Eddy Grant is singing about and I can’t help but feel proud to call that area and the surrounding borough, my home.

To some, feeling like, or being a Londoner means you were born here. To others it’s about the numbers of years you’ve lived here. Personally, I think being a Londoner is about so many things. London is my home because it’s the city that gave me a place to live, an education and gainful employment for myself, my parents and many of my family and I am fiercely proud of those things. Popular culture reflects these changes for me – watching, reading and hearing about the city reinforces my identity as a Londoner. It will be interesting to see how, as London’s population continues to change, the London identity and these feelings of belonging also adapt and evolve.

Denean Rowe is a senior development officer at Centre for London. In 2018, Centre for London published a paper, London Identities which explored these issues further. Follow Denean on Twitter. Image: From BBC adaptation of White Teeth.

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Categories: Culture

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