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This is a Northern line train to nowhere. Please mind the gap.

04/14/2013

Londoners

The multi-coloured lines on the front of Craig Taylor’s book Londoners lured me in. A simple design consisting of a dozen horizontal stripes representing the lines on the London Underground arranged in alphabetical order; from the brown of the Bakerloo line down to the turquoise Waterloo and City line.

Londoners isn’t written by a Londoner but a Canadian who grew up on Vancouver Island off the west coast. Anyone who’s visited nearby Salt Spring Island will know that this is probably about as far from the hustle and bustle of London that it is possible to get. Taylor moved to London in 2000 and the book is an attempt to capture the essence of what it’s like to live in London by focusing on the lives of ordinary people rather than a litany of facts and figures inspired by the city’s architecture and geography. It’s been painstakingly transcribed from interviews with over two hundred people over a five year period.

You can dip into the book anywhere and immediately be transported into the thoughts of a multitude of characters. It begins with an airline pilot describing a descent into Heathrow and continues with the stories of over eighty other people. From currency traders, estate agents, police officers, commuters, teachers, actors, taxi drivers and hedge fund managers. To street cleaners, refugees, protesters, rappers, market traders and rickshaw riders. It feels like being on the top deck of a bus or in a late night takeaway listening to someone babble away into a mobile phone. Sometimes you’re left wanting to hear more.

By turns it is funny, sad, hopeful, despairing, angry, indignant and thoughtful. And there are some genuine moments of loveliness. Such as Emmajo Read, a door attendant at a night club in Farringdon (Fabric?) who describes her favourite part of the night. “What I especially love is in summer when it’s about three, four in the morning, and you get this kind of purple-pinky hue in the sky……when I’ve been at my most pissed off, most offended and just felt really despairing, I look up to the Barbican tower and I see the top of Smithfield Market and that sky, and it’s like I’m just in it”.

One of several recurring themes is the grime and dirt of the city. It reminded me of someone I used to work with in Cambridge who after regular visits to the capital the first thing she would do when she got home was jump in the shower; “London’s proper dirty innit?” she explained to me, nose wrinkling and in a broad Essex accent.

The book has left me reflecting on my own relationship with London. It’s five years this week since we migrated to the capital and into a first floor flat just round the corner from the nightclub mentioned above. One of the first things that hits you is the noise, the almost continuous hum, of life in central London, particularly at night; police sirens, helicopters, revellers emerging from clubs, bin lorries turning up at 2am and the sound of a suitcase being wheeled down the street as someone dashes for an early morning flight.

Aside from the usual gripes of exiled northerners, something that has consistently baffled and amused me is the revelation that most Londoners seem to have no idea of where anywhere is outside of the M25. It’s not just places up north, it’s anywhere that you can’t get to on the tube.

It makes for some interesting conversations, particularly when you’ve enjoyed a relatively peripatetic working life. The list of places where I’ve lived or worked tends to resemble a who’s who of lower division football including the likes of Cambridge, Peterborough, Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Sheffield and Mansfield. Only Stoke features in the Premier League. Ah, Stoke. Everyone loves Stoke don’t they?

Here’s a sample conversation (and this is genuine);

– So, where did you used to work then?

– Sherwood Forest Hospitals

Now, I don’t know about you but when it comes to wooded areas I’ve always thought that Sherwood Forest is pretty famous. Okay, it hasn’t got a cake named after it but, hey, there’s the whole Robin Hood thing; Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham? No?

Where’s that then?

– We were based in Mansfield

– *blank look*

– It’s not far from Nottingham

*another blank look* followed by a flicker of recognition and

– Oh, is that near Manchester?

Now, if there’s anyone sat at home in Nottingham reading this, your city may have given the world some of its finest lace, Boots the chemist, bicycles, Robin Hood and one of your football clubs may have won twice as many European Cups as all the football teams in London put together but that doesn’t mean that the good folk of London can find you on a map. You’re a suburb of Manchester, that’s what you are. Think on the next time you’re going on about how wonderful Nottingham is.

And, if you’re not from Nottingham but another town or city in the northern half of the country there’s no need for you to snigger either. You might be sat at home with a brew watching Coronation Street having just returned from taking the whippet for a walk but there’s a fair chance that the average Londoner hasn’t heard of your town either.

This is not to say that Londoners don’t travel very much. They do. They take holidays in exotic locations all over the globe. They just don’t seem to travel very far in England. Or Wales. Or Scotland. It’s almost as if in London’s desire to preserve its status as the financial capital of the world it has turned its back on the rest of the nation and increasingly looks abroad instead. They don’t know what they’re missing.

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