I’ve always been a city boy. I love the countryside with its fresh air, open spaces, rivers, forests and all that good stuff. I’d just love it more if it had aircon and wifi. (In truth, I actually do love detaching myself from the connection and activity of metropolis precisely because of the juxtaposition with the everyday. It’s refreshing but I wouldn’t want it to be permanent.)
I love cities. Cities are just like people, but better because they don’t try to talk to you as much and you don’t have to look at their stupid faces all the time. Cities, like people, are fascinatingly multi-dimensional and intricately complex. They have real character traits and personalities.
To my mind, one of the greatest things we’ve done as a species is build giant, unfathomably big cities to live together in. They symbolise everything important about our species. They exist across the world as these giant monuments to the fact that we want to be close to each other, even if we often use the opportunity that brings to be awful to each other. They highlight the very best of our learning and application. We build buildings and networks and culture and systems that consistently show off the best of what we’re capable of. I’m thoroughly behind the trend of urbanisation that means it was only in the previous decade we finally hit and then exceeded a 50/50 ratio between people who live in cities and those who live rurally. This means that, from this point on, there are more of us city people than country folk around the world. Bring it on. Cities rule!
Like with people, you can’t ever truly know and understand a city in its entirety. You can develop a deep, close relationship – learn its foibles and idiosyncrasies but you’ll never know all of it. It’s too big, too contradictory and complicated. My personal tip is this: If you want to start to get to know a city, walk its streets in the day and at night. You’ll get two different stories and together they’ll give you the glimpse you’re after. Walk the streets of Hong Kong in the day and you’ll stray between urban poverty and unprecedented wealth. You’ll see seamless cultural interaction and a physical geography that makes the city seem disconnected when nothing could be further from the truth and it will all be set to a soundtrack of hubbub and chatter that seems familiar to any big city but is subtly unique. At night you might find muggy chaos, tension, dimly lit community in unusual high rises or calm moonlight serenity. Paris will feed you a structure of aged wisdom with the sands of youthful energy pouring through the cracks. Jerusalem will twist your mind and your soul, Bangkok will scream at you with a smile and New York, my favourite place on earth, New York will offer you the world but you’ve got to be ready to take it.
London has always held a special place in my heart. Growing up on its outskirts it always held a kind of curious, majestic intrigue to my younger self and I’ve lived as an adult in North (Seven Sisters), East (Plaistow), West (West Kensington) and South (Brixton) London, taking in as much as I can of this place that I feel part of more than any other. Even after meeting New York for the first time, London remained on its pedestal, if now relegated to the marginally less grand title of “second favourite place one earth”. Even as I eschewed the UK and moved abroad, where I will doubtless return at some point given that I have never wanted to live forever in the country I was born. Even as I continued to perceive my own culture and country’s failings with contempt and disgust, London has always been a shining beacon to me.
London has everything. London is everything. It’s a place where you can go for Salsa dancing, Nigerian cinema and Japanese cuisine on a Tuesday night if you so wish. It’s the archetype of a proud history merging into a globalised future. It’s diverse and open and proud and it always leads, never follows. And it has an inner strength and unity that makes me proud to call it home right now.
More than one baby boomers who never lived through the Blitz has told me in the past that younger generations had gone soft and were nothing compared to the Londoners of old. In no way do I seek to compare a few nutjobs on a violent ego trip to the horrors of the Blitz but the last few months have given us a clue that that was never true. Whether from the terror attacks that have forced themselves on us three times in a matter of months or in the aftermath of the horrific events at Grenfell Tower London has proved that it possesses an incredibly resolute strength, intelligence and determined togetherness that binds.
London speaks with many voices. It speaks with the dignity and gravity of Parliament, it speaks with the disappearing cockney accent of East London, it speaks with a hundred tones and in two hundred languages. It shouts “You ain’t no Muslim, Bruv” in the midst of an attempted attack and berates “You lot piss me the fuck off” in the middle of a riot. In times of trouble it speaks with a unity and collective sentiment that is rare among any group of people. When small people with aspirations of fear and division bring violence to our streets, we reply as one. We mourn, we condemn, we pick ourselves up and we carry on. Together. After Grenfell the consensus was clear: This is not OK and we’re angry.
Times have been troubled recently but walk the streets. Walk them in the day and walk them at night. London hasn’t changed. The streets tell the same story. Strength, humour, creativity, focus and an acceptance of each other that’s so unshakeable we almost don’t need to say it out loud. London’s still London. It’s still wonderful and ugly and aggressive and wise. It still doesn’t like the sun being out too much or the rain coming down too hard. It’s still vocal and opinionated but stoic when it senses the things are serious. London’s still London.