By Rajneesh Narula
(Another in my occasional essay series)
We all love stereotypes because they are really very nice in simplifying the world. The Dutch are cheap; the French are romantic, London (and the English) are known for images such as the bowler hat, restraint, the class system, understatement and quaint expressions such as ‘jolly good’. But stereotypes are largely for entertainment, and are quite useless when dealing with real life. Now that I live in London I am reminded of this on a daily basis.
This morning I boarded a train with a man whose pockets were obviously full. Being a smoker, he had obviously decided that the next best place to situate his lighter was in his right earlobe, as a sort of glorified earring. He was not wearing a bowler hat, or any other hat, so I cannot say whether this was a class thing, or whether body piercing is now regarded as a form of understatement. But being an astute sort of person, I felt sure this extreme form of physical expression did not quite fit the stereotype of your typical Englishman.
The intoxicating business of creating the English stereotype owes an eternal debt of gratitude to writers such as Enid Blyton, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, and Charles Dickens, but predates literature, or even the ability to read. My 2-year old niece can name only one city on the planet, and this is London (this precocious child lives in Jakarta). Not because she has an uncle here, or that she is made to swear undying allegiance to HRH Queen Elizabeth II on a daily basis by her patriotic parents, but because of nursery rhymes such as the ludicrous one about a certain bridge falling down. She has already indicated her desire to visit and view this poorly constructed monument.
Imagine the trauma many generations of children have experienced when threatened with the prospect of visiting London, in constant fear that crossing the Thames by bridge was a hazardous task. Others, such as myself, took it for granted that the falling down aspect was over, and that London Bridge existed no more. I felt sorry for the hapless citizens of London, whom, despite having cats in boots walking their gold paved streets (and flying nannies in the sky above), who were forced daily to swim across to the other side. Eventually my family made a pilgrimage to London, and my concern for the citizens of London was somewhat assuaged when I noticed that there was no shortage of bridges, many of which were in no danger of falling down. But none, mind you, seems to be named London Bridge.
London does not seem very English anymore, once you get away from the most obvious monuments, tourist traps and the appalling tendency to name streets after squares on the Monoply board. I am as yet uncertain whether there are any actual white ethnic Londoners living here. Certainly they seem not to hang around the west end, or for that matter, the east end. I am yet to hear a genuine cockney accent that wasn’t on East Enders. Indeed, I am yet to hear any sort of accent that might possibly be construed as English (and when I do, these folk prove to be visitors from rural parts asking for directions). It is, in fact, exceedingly difficult to have a conversation of any sort in English that does not sound as if the speaker’s mouth was overflowing with hot yam pottage. So moved am I by this that my heart goes out to those poor fascist chaps from the British National Party who are concerned about the growing tendency for London to be populated by ‘one-legged Bangladeshi lesbians’ (restraint, politeness and understatement all being institutions the fascists hold dear, so there is no danger of exaggeration on their part). Pick up the phone and call your bank and you battle with undecipherable Indian or Scottish accents. Stop by your local supermarket and you get eastern European syntax. Try talking to a bus driver and you are challenged with West Indian patois. Chinese, Germans, Italians, Indians, Russians, Jordanians, Nigerians, Kiwis South Africans, it’s a regular Noah’s Ark around here. I have heard whispers that there may as yet remain some small pockets of native English folk in remote parts of Chelsea and Kensington, but the zoologists are reluctant to divulge their actual whereabouts for fear of possible damage to their eco-system. They are best recognised by their lack of chins, but they too speak their own dialect (or so I am told). Their location is kept secret because it is believed that so many tourists with binoculars may adversely affect their mating habits.
Most other traditional animal species of London are also absent. There are no pigeons any more in Trafalgar square (although the stone lions still snarl), nor as far as I can tell, nightingales in Berkeley Square. Of course the decline of the local fauna may well have to do with the disappearance of their traditional diet. Gone are the fish-and-chips shops, replaced by a multitude of Indian restaurants, sushi bars and French café’s. My search for a pub that serves actual steak-and-kidney pie continues without notable success. However, really bad sandwiches continue to be served in most places, so those of you who come here seeking the bland or the plain indigestible will not feel betrayed.
What of the fabled passion for queuing? Even this venerable institution, I must reluctantly announce, has bitten the dust, at least in the capital. When an orderly queue does form this is largely constituted of hapless foreigners and visitors from the provinces who have read some outdated travel guide, or whose last visit coincided with the Elizabeth’s coronation. The natives demonstrate, instead, the organisation preferred by rugby players and passengers on Nigeria Airways.
But fear not, brave readers. Red double-decker buses continue to roam the streets, Big Ben still chimes, and London boasts some of the best museums in the world, most of which will let almost anyone in for absolutely no money. Pubs still close at ridiculous hours, staff of essential services continue to strike on an unpredictable basis, and trains never run on time. And yes, it still never really ever stops raining.
But seriously, do come and rediscover London, for to do so is to discover London anew. This is a vibrant city, alive, evolving and indubitably the most multi-cultural metropolis anywhere in the world. Unlike New York, or indeed, unlike London of a few years ago, it is not a city where communities live in glorious isolation of each other, cheek-by-jowl. Instead there is a blending of cultures, an inextricable marriage of values, tastes, flavours colours, traditions, and orientations. There is a powerful interdependence between this myriad of communities, of different generations of immigrants, visitors, of residents. This may have been the centre of the largest empire in history, but it is only now, some 50 years after its demise, that London has become a city that epitomises globalization, and has become a crossroads of its former empire where diversity is a fact of life. I think, though, that we could do with a lot more one-legged Bangladeshi Lesbians, and a few less fascists. Otherwise, a jolly good place to be…