Over the weekend I went out with two of my best friends. One grew up in Hove, the other in Southampton. I sometimes joke that I’m the only Londoner I know who was actually born here. That isn’t true, but like many such jokes it has enough of the ring of truth.
London is a vast metropolis and because of the appalling economic imbalance of the UK, people are drawn here from all over the country. Also, because we are a leading economic power (for now) people are drawn here from all over the world. It’s part of what makes London so vibrant and interesting. There’s not a language you won’t hear or a cuisine you can’t find. Every weekend you can hear the music of hundreds of cultures or experience the art of a dozen different peoples.
I am the first to argue for a rebalancing of the UK’s economy away from the City and away from the south. It’s an important goal for all sorts of reasons, not least that it is really key that people like my friends come to London because they want to and because they feel welcome here, not simply because it’s the only place they can find economically rewarding work. But unfortunately, all too often, the debate about how the UK better balances its economic activity devolves into a hatred of London and the regular circulation of certain myths about Londoners ourselves and our alleged unfriendliness.
These simply aren’t true. Our shopkeepers are as friendly or grumpy or disinterested as those anywhere else. When you live in one place for a while you get to know them. When you move around a lot, you don’t. That London has a more transient population is a problem of our economy and a reflection of the youth of our city. It’s not because all of us are moody!
The reason we don’t say “thank you” to bus drivers when we get off the bus is not because we’re all dreadful people with no gratitude to offer our fellow citizens. It’s because, unlike many other bus designs, we alight from ours at the rear or middle of the bus, away from where the driver is. Sure, we don’t stop and say hello to everyone we pass on the street. That’s because nearly nine million people live here. But take a dog to a park and every stranger you pass will smile, stop you and chat.
For better or for worse, Londoners aren’t different from other people. But it is an oddity of British life that the one place you are not allowed to be proud of being from is London. Any sense of such is seen as metropolitan or southern arrogance. But I am proud to be a Londoner. Not because it makes me better than someone from anywhere else, but because it has informed so much of who I am.
Pride of place is a natural human instinct. It’s important to our sense of identity. People need a sense of their roots – whether those they were born with or those they have adopted. One of the key facets for many Londoners is loving both their city and their original home. That doesn’t make them citizens of nowhere. It makes them people who understand that you can love two places at once.
Londoners themselves sometimes buy into stereotypes about our city’s unfriendliness. If we continue doing that, it helps narratives about our rootlessness to take hold. But we are not people from nowhere. We’re very proud of our somewhere: our boroughs and our neighbourhoods, our streets and our city as a whole.
It’s not wrong to say that the anti-London agenda is part of a much wider anti-cosmopolitan one. Londoners – those born here and those who arrived yesterday alike – should resist it. It harms our city and its people. And it also harms the idea our city represents for so many others – as a place of refuge, hope and community.
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