London: Introduction

  • © Veni,

    © Veni,


Thirty million visitors per year can’t be wrong. Red double-decker buses, the golden tower of Big Ben, the imposing dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the neo-Gothicky towers of the freshly painted Tower Bridge: London is a city that has something for everybody – and reveals new dimensions however often you go. London is always moving, yet manages to keep its 2000-year history alive.

It is this contrast between tradition and modernity, between the bearskin hats at the changing of the royal guard and the latest fashion trends on the streets, between afternoon tea at the Ritz and Bengali curries on Brick Lane, that makes the charm of the English, and British, capital. London has 7.5 million inhabitants.

This is the centre of British politics, of the financial and media world, of culture – with world-class museums and theatres and a vibrant restaurant scene. International music and fashion trends are made here. Since the millennium London has given itself a fresh coat of paint, with a changing skyline, newly styled museums and some of the most ambitious architecture in Europe.

Where today the stockbrokers hurry to work in the City, the history of the city began 2000 years ago as the Roman trading post of Londinium. The next occupiers along were Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. The victory of the Normans at the battle of Hastings in 1066 to claim succession to the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, the founder of Westminster Abbey, was the last time that London was conquered.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, London grew out of two settlements on the northern bank of the Thames, the City and Westminster, to be a capital of both government and trade. There was never much concern with anything approaching planning. After the flames of the Great Fire of London in 1666 had devoured a good four fifths of the wooden houses, time and again opportunities for planned urban development were missed, lending the metropolis an engagingly hodgepodge air.

A cosmopolitan mosaic

London is a sum of many parts: exclusive Mayfair with fine townhouses, St  James’s, the quarter of the genteel clubs, the dissolute district of Soho with its strip clubs, Bloomsbury, the intellectuals’ choice of the 20th century, Greenwich with its maritime flair, green Hampstead – a homogeneous whole never emerged. Traditionally true Londoners are Cockneys (the etymology of the word is not clear), born within hearing distance of the church bells of St-Mary-le-Bow in the City.

The ‘typical’ Londoner though is no longer a category that serves. By the 17th century at the latest, when Huguenot silk weavers from France settled in the East End, London became a cosmopolitan city. The Irish followed in the 19th century, looking for work. Then, in the 1950s London received a batch of immigrants from the Caribbean Commonwealth states. They all built up their own social networks, hanging on to parts of their traditions.

Others came and went: in 1726, Voltaire, the philosopher of French Enlightenment, looked for exile in tolerant London, in the late 19th century Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by the English socialists and dramatist George Bernard Shaw during his legal studies here, and Hampstead was to be the last residence of Sigmund Freud, fleeing Nazi persecution.

Today, just look around you in the tube carriage for a cross-section of London’s population: a City manager in pinstripes next to a dreadlocked Afro-Caribbean teenager, an old Chinese lady, a young skater in sports designer labels next to the Bengali mother in a sari. The bomb attacks in 2005 did not really ever dent the openness and multicultural lifestyle of the city.

Multicultural yet very British…

‘London’ does not equal ‘England’, but some English character traits – a certain reserve, politeness, a tolerant individualism, a sense of tradition, understatement, paired with self-deprecation – form the foundation for coexistence in the metropolis. No less than thirty cultures share this multicultural city; over a third of Londoners belong to an ethnic minority.

Only 40 minutes from Trafalgar Square, in the suburb of Southall, you can imagine yourself in the Punjab, between Indian radio music, shops selling salwar kameez tunic/trouser ensembles und curry aromas. 300 languages are spoken in the capital of the mother country of the English language, a reminder of the British Empire which, during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), stretched across a quarter of the globe. This doesn’t mean that there are no jarring notes in the multicultural concert: the front pages of some tabloid newspapers keep immigration and ‘Islamisation’ in the news.

Day-to-day life in the metropolis

So, how do they live, the people of London? Londoners earn about £900 a week; however, some nine per cent have no job. With Kensington & Chelsea and Tower Hamlets, London can claim both the richest and the poorest borough in the country. While Londoners are not yet much into recycling, more and more cycle to work and volunteer: maybe reforesting at a Green Gym in the park or as a mentor working against the gang ideology of carrying knives instead of school books.

Doing something for the community is becoming ever more important, as central services have fallen victim to drastic budget cuts; a protest march in 2011 had tens of thousands taking to the streets. Londoners are more politically and culturally interested than the country’s average. More and more of them are now wedded to their iPod and eBook readers, something you notice as a tourist when you want to ask the way but find everybody is wearing earphones… The new electronic media help to sweeten the long commutes; Londoners need one hour on average just to get to work.

London’s old nickname, the Big Smoke, is a reminder of the time when industrial smog was still claiming lives. In fact, London boasts more green spaces than any city of comparable size. Pleasant walks lead through Hyde Park, Green Park or Regent’s Park, where office workers unwrap their sandwiches in their short lunch break.

The Royal parks are only one example of how the monarchy runs alongside London life; the Royals may bring lots of tourists into the city, but for day-to-day life the Queen has a lot less significance than the manager of Arsenal football club or the latest development in the Eastenders soap opera. However, in 2011, Kate Middleton’s entry into the Royal family brought a new element into the Royal mix, which has revived interest. Not least Kate’s interest in fashion guarantees her front pages in the Evening Standard.

Where true trends are born

For their immediate requirements Londoners count on their mayor, currently  Boris Johnson. This colourful Tory’s most difficult task remains getting citizens from A to B. Every year, the world’s oldest and longest underground network transports a billion passengers, fighting technical problems. The tube stations of the Jubilee Line, such as Norman Foster’s Canary Wharf, might resemble gleaming cathedrals, but traffic in the city with Europe’s most expensive public transport system is still often near collapsing point – despite the congestion charge.

The second most discussed subject at dinner parties is real estate. Despite sinking property prices in the wake of the credit crunch, most Londoners have no chance of getting onto the property ladder or even finding affordable, reasonably central accommodation to rent. The hunt for cheap living space was also behind the Hoxton/Shoreditch phenomenon of recent years, when artists and others leading more alternative lifestyles moved into these crumbling parts of town near the City, turning them into trendy places to live, work and party. Now it’s the turn of Dalston.

‘Trendy’ is here not meant in the way of gentrified Notting Hill. Walking between Turkish kebab outfits, pound shops, walls pasted over with fly-posters and plastic bags blown about by the wind brings on more of a High Noon feeling. These unvarnished areas of east London, full of young people, maybe the next big designers, musicians and artists, cultivate their own kind of snobbery. In a fast-moving scene, they know which grubby façade hides steps down into the latest club. 

The best place to feel the pulse of London is along the Thames. Londoners have rediscovered what was once the main transport artery of the city for strolling. The murky waters deceive: Father Thames is cleaner than it has been in the past 50 years, and bridges – modernised (Hungerford Bridge) or new (Millennium Bridge) – give the city a new sense of cohesion. At the same time the river has always marked the dividing line between north and south London. Sarf’ London, to date known for anonymous social housing, youthful mobile phone robbers and a lack of infrastructure, is gaining ground and inspiring new trends and urban sounds.

The model quarter here is Southwark, from 2012 on endowed with Europe’s highest building, Renzo Piano’s office tower The Shard. Meanwhile the city is growing eastwards: downriver, in the Docklands, skyscrapers reach towards the sky. The new sports facilities for 2012 in the Lea Valley Olympic Park are also concentrated in the east. It is this dynamism that makes London one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

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