London has both an energy and a calm, a paradox of peace and chaos that marks it out from other cities. Its spirit and history ooze out of every brick, every park, every door. It is for me the city where the whole world meets. Read more to find out my stories of 'the Big Smoke'.
"In London I walk".
In London I walk. My friends there think I'm mad. They look at me bewildered, "Why don't you just jump on the tube?" they ask, "You'll be there in a matter of minutes". Nope, I shake my head. Why would I want to cram myself like a cranberry into a cramped glass bullet to be bumpily shot down down a dark, dirty tunnel when I could be out in the sunshine pounding pavements that have felt the footsteps of millions of people and centuries of history? In every street of London people emerge from their doors and from behind those doors they pull out their own stories, different histories of their home, their health, their love, their losses. All these individuals playing out their own lives, weaving their own webs and writing their own histories - and all living in one small space that is London. In London I walk and when I walk I get to see a small glimpse of all these stories and to imagine the lives that are led beyond those doors. It lights me up inside knowing that each person here makes a small piece of a ginormous jigsaw that very roughly fits together to make a collage of little worlds winding around those roads, meeting and sliding past one another, and together painting the picture that is London. No, in London I walk, otherwise I would miss it.
As a linguist, standing in Leicester Square in London must be like a chocaholic would feel having people approach them from every angle with a thousand different pieces of pure heaven, different smells, shapes, colours, tastes to be tasted and savoured. In Leicester Square, people criss-cross and zig-zag, navigating around one another usually at top speed but all the while with words falling from their mouths and those words are coming out in French, Finnish, Dutch and Danish, and in Mandarin, Malay, Portuguese and Polish, and in Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and English, and all different Englishes with accents from all parts of the globe. My ears can't take them all in but they try, each one with a different tune and twist, all letters and sounds to add to the spaghetti soup. And hands are flailing to accompany the sounds and faces are frowning, and grinning and groaning, as friends discuss their next stop on the tourist trail, or partners striding down parallel streets talking through hanging headphones bicker about what's for dinner, while the business brigade negotiate their deals on their way to the morning meeting. One study revealed that there are possibly over 250 languages being spoken in London by its inhabitants, making it the most linguistically rich city in the world (Baker & Eversley, 2000). On my last visit to London as I sat on the train from Gatwick to Victoria, I listened in to the Italian girls in front of me, one teaching the other about the British royal family and who was the next to the throne. I listened to the French couple beside me, whispering their plans for the day, the Palace, Hyde Park, Harrods. I listened to the Italian business man pattering away on his phone about Fabrizio and the deal. In the café the barista greeted the students behind me in Greek and the builders under the scaffold chatted away in Polish. The man I asked for directions directed me in a beautiful Irish accent before continuing on his way with his dog as a Cockney bloke rhymed his rhyme on his phone, animated and alight with the life of London. Every face, feature, alphabet, accent, style, race, religion all walking in the same streets, all illuminated by the same London lights, all different, all unique, and all together. For me, this is what excites me most about this city. It is a huge hotpot of differences, and I do believe more so than any other city in the world. With food from everywhere, clothes to suit everyone, holy buildings for all religions, embassies for each nation, shops for all styles, music for every musician, and histories from every shore all washing up in this one place, London has a slice of the familiar for each and every person who finds themselves there, at home in the hotpot.
"Statues stand still and proud on their podiums, telling a tale of another time, another turning point in history, another chapter in London's book".
Costumes and Communities
In London, each person wears their costume that tells the passer-by in which way they contribute to keeping the cogs of the London powerhouse turning. A waiter in a white apron, a workman in his high vis vest, a woman tottering on her heels and a man in a suit with trousers always just that little bit too short. Office workers huddle in the alleyways puffing on their cigarettes while the lady from the café proudly positions her chalkboard sign displaying the day's specials. The tour guide leads her group, flag held high in the air and the policemen plod along, bobby black hats and hands held together behind backs. The black cab driver blasts his music from the window and sings loudly to the tunes as the buskers in Trafalgar Square attempt to make their voice the one that will be heard above the crowd. Tourists tap away on their phones, capturing moments in the madness and kids point at the soldiers perched on horseback, keeping their faces straight while tassels from their pointy hats dance around in the wind. Statues stand still and proud on their podiums, telling a tale of another time, another turning point in history, another chapter in London's book. One of the tracks I have most often followed around London is from Victoria station to Buckingham Palace, through St James Park with its swimming swans and squirrels that are not afraid to climb your body like a tree branch. Then, on to Downing Street and Big Ben standing proudly by Parliament, chiming out the hours and peering across the River Thames. To mark the Millennium the London Eye was added, careful capsules that collect passengers and show them the famous skyline. The Tate Modern along the river and back over the cobbles to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London where maidens were murdered and Beefeaters stand guard of the Crown Jewels. Covent Garden with its barrows of bulbs ready for Spring and the Westend with Wicked and War Horse, seats ready for weary wanderers trying to cram hundreds of years of history and heritage into whirlwind weekend tours. Each place on the map has its own play playing out inside its very own snow globe, full of people connecting and crossing, coming together to make communities. Slightly out of the centre London continues with a procession of places, Notting Hill, Camden, Greenwich, Brixton, all with their unique characters, their markets, festivals, like villages in their own right, filling up their own bubbles, bursting with life and creativity. Tube back to the centre, and every now and again, a red box stands on the corner awaiting a photo, an icon of a place painted in red and gold, a crown placed on the top of a city boasting a population of 8,173,941, Europe's third largest city behind Istanbul and Moscow (World Population Review, 2019). This city of workers in 2016 contributed £408 billion to the economy, accounting for 23% of the UK total income. London, the city of the Queen, of finance, of fancy clothes and finery, a city of culture, carnival, and costume and community.
Beneath the pomp and procession of London's wealth and wonder, there is also a darkness that crouches in the corners of the ancient alleyways, a sadness and a secret history that hangs its head in shame and lurks beneath the landmarks. It is a history of ill-gotten gains, of colonialism and slavery. It is a present of cruel capitalism and disparaging disparity. The British Museum displays its articles as its own whilst protestors bang on its doors, calling for them back. Oligarchs own their multiple Mayfair homes whilst Grenfell burns in the bright light skyline, and while London's well-to-do dine on fine cuisine in fancy restaurants, London's less fortunate lie cold on park benches, hungry and hopeless. I admit it is in London where I lost my childhood naivety; it is in London where I learned how cruel we could all be. It was in London where I first saw cardboard cities in the park and where I watched as a teenager, shocked as people darted undeterred around a homeless man's body on the pavement. It was in London where I first learned the significance of disease, as a man pleaded for help for his head smashed open from a tourist's beer bottle, bleeding out blood the bartender refused to get close to, throwing him a towel and yelling at him to get the hell out. It was in London when my eyes first saw a mound of filthy cloth in the underground, and looking close picked out the face of a woman and still closer the body of a new born baby, wrapped in rags in her arms. London is without doubt a city of haves and have-nots and at times, the inequality, the unfairness of it all screams in your ears, pulls guilt from your heart and stings tears in your eyes. London has a horrible history and a painful present that should not be hidden from the onlooker beneath the golden paint and the glitz; somewhere someone paid for that paint, and it wasn't always by honest means. Recent figures show that 50% of the city's wealth is held by the top 10% while 27% of the population, most of whom are working, live below the poverty line (Trust for London, 2019). In London, in terms of equality, there is still much to be done. Below is a video of a mural I found by the River Thames which succinctly covers London's history until recent times; you may see glimpses here of some of the darker periods I refer to.
"It was a waiting whisper, a sense of something significant, the image of a London teetering on the edge of the bridge, poised above the Thames, waiting to fall or hoping to be held back."
Origins and endings
My most recent visit to London was on a mission to the Cypriot Consulate to ask whether I might be eligible for Cypriot nationality as my Grandad, my dad's dad, was born there in 1908, making me 'of Cypriot origin'. As I sat in the Consulate waiting room with the Cypriot TV singing Greek in the background and other faces of Cypriot origin around me, I tried to imagine what it must have been like for my Grandad stepping off that boat and making his way here where he worked in the hotels as a waiter and finally fixing the train tracks around North London and Watford. I wondered how many others made that journey, still make that journey, lured by the lights or just desperate for work and a way to pay the bills. My Grandad made that journey, my Nanna gave birth to my Dad in a hospital in the very heart of the city, a meeting of Wales and Cyprus in England's capital, and my Dad still carries hints of the London accent today. As it turned out, when it was finally my turn, the lady in the Consulate said that if I am able to gather the correct documents (which may not be so simple), I would be eligible for citizenship, which means the next time I go to London I may be entering the city as a British citizen and leaving as a Cypriot. The lady in the Consulate said I would not be the first nor the last in a flurry of Brits begging for a European passport in these days of uncertainty for a country which once was a colonial Empire and now is scrambling to find its feet in a global game where new powers are fast emerging. With a predicted £900 billion set to leave London and many jobs already lost or moved, since 2016 London has seen a trickle turn to a flood with companies and banks finding new homes abroad (Diamond et al., 2019). As I walked past the Palace and down the Mall to the place of the Horse Guards Parade, I felt a quiet in the London air that I hadn't felt before. It was a waiting whisper, a sense of something significant, the image of a London teetering on the edge of the bridge, poised above the Thames, waiting to fall or hoping to be held back. It was indeed the first time I had walked along the Mall and not been bustled about by the hundreds of tourists and joggers and police and pageantry. In fact, there were moments when I was alone in my stepping of the stones, and in London, in the heart of the tourist area, that is a very strange feeling indeed. It is hard to know what ending awaits London in these difficult times. I hope the London lion remains courageous in a country wishing to turn back the clock on its multicultural fabric but it is hard to know which way the big red bus will turn next and even harder to know where it will stop.
Not usually in the busy landmark areas, but tucked away behind those pointy, shiny black railings hidden amongst the houses are some of my favourite spots in London - the secret gardens, green and grassy, havens with benches and birds and butterflies. Sitting on those benches in those peaceful London parks, you could almost be anywhere in the world, and it is always strange to think that you are in fact sitting in one of the greatest, busiest, most diverse, historically rich and wonderfully wondrous cities of the world. London, who knows what awaits you at this strange and poignant period in time but whatever it is, I know you will continue to harbour those heavenly green havens, welcome those workers from both home and abroad, and stand proud and pristine, light and dark, peaceful and chaotic, the hotpot of language, life, culture and cuisine, a familiar face for everyone from everywhere. I leave you with a few images of London havens I have been lucky enough to find and below it a music video of the The Clash London Calling that I think draws on this double-edged sword of London followed by a video montage of London images very aptly named 'London: The City of Diversity', for me the city's greatest asset, and how I hope it will continue to be for a very long time to come.
Baker, P. and Eversley, J. (eds). 2000. Multilingual Capital, London. Battlebridge.
Diamond, J., Vaghela, V. and Comfort, N. 2019. Money Is Flooding Out of London While the U.K. Bickers Over Brexit. Bloomberg. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-23/while-u-k-dithers-over-brexit-finance-outflows-pick-up-speed
Trust for London. 2019. London Key Facts. Available at: https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/key-facts-london-poverty-and-inequality/
World Population Review. 2019. London Population 2019. Available at: http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/london-population/