Karen Buck is the member of parliament for Westminster North. She knows a lot about housing, a lot about music and a lot about this great song of a city. This her first article for On London and, I hope, not the last.
London is a city in perpetual motion, and not just because of the daily commute. Londoners move a lot. As we once again become a city of private renters, we are moving even more. My own corner of the city shows this at its most extreme: one in three of those on the electoral register this year won’t be at the same address next year.
This mobility may be good for some individuals: the up-and-out impact of Right to Buy works as an example here. But it is frequently bad for communities, and involuntary uprooting has an emotional cost. This is often due to an attachment to locality – I refuse to use the word “village” in this context – that can be incredibly strong in London.
In the course of my work as an MP, I deal on an almost daily basis with families facing being moved away from the area they think of as their own, as homelessness rises and London’s councils move them around the city and beyond, trying to find affordable accommodation for them. The current commentary around the re-housing of Grenfell victims has given the issue a higher profile.
Enforced dislocation is felt keenly. People have a strong sense of belonging to a neighbourhood, even a borough, which goes well beyond the merely practical and which I frequently hear articulated with emotional intensity.
This sense of connection to particular places across London has long been reflected in popular culture too, especially music. So many London songs are vignettes of a segment of London, rather than of the city as a whole. Ian Dury sang of Plaistow Patricia and, venturing into Essex, Billericay Dickie (“Oh golly, oh gosh, come and lie on the couch, with a nice bit of posh from Burnham on Crouch”). Squeeze evoked a stretch of South London, from Lewisham to Battersea and beyond: “I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham.”
Other artists personified particular parts of the city as much as they directly sang about them. Billy Bragg was the Bard of Barking. Madness cornered North London. The Clash occupy a special place in my affection, having started out as the 101’ers in Walterton Road, North Paddington, before going on to sprinkle punk glamour on Elgin Avenue and the Westway. Today, the grime scene in London has brought forth a new generation of musicians and wordsmiths with a strong sense of place and urban identity.
But does the increasing churn of London mean that the city is losing its distinctive, localised sense of place? Is this becoming rooted in something bigger than a neighbourhood? There’s certainly a sense of “being a Londoner” in a broader way, which, whilst not mutually exclusive with being English and/or British and/or European sometimes feels like an identity all its own.
There have been songs that capture something of that, an all of London episode or moment. The city was celebrated by the Windrush generation of migrants from the Caribbean through Lord Kitchener’s London Is The Place For Me. But others are more about alienation from the big city. Think of The Jam’s Strange Town or Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.
Where are the love songs to our city that capture its mood like George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at the start of the movie Manhattan, or Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s duet version of Autumn In New York? Or, more recently, the glorious New York, I Love You by LCD Soundsystem. Or Alicia Keys’s Empire State of Mind?
Waterloo Sunset topped Time Out’s chart of London songs a while back. Though about a specific part of London, the Kinks classic has reached beyond it to reflect the city as a whole and has stood the test of time. Yet it was an American, Gershwin again, with his brother Ira, who wrote the wonderful A Foggy Day (In London Town). A great New York film, When Harry Met Sally, had Rodgers and Hart as well as the Gershwins to call on for its soundtrack. But Love Actually, a visual feast for millennial Londoners whatever else you thought of it, featured the Beach Boys, for God’s sake.
London as a whole deserves a soundtrack just as much as Clapham and Plaistow do. I’ve often wondered why it doesn’t have one and felt sorry about it. Maybe the way London is changing now, that will start to change too.
Read more about Karen Buck here.