- Words by Victoria Glendinning
On the outskirts of London a new housing estate ends abruptly in a ragged field, doubtless soon to be built upon. Further in, street names refer to lost landmarks, and bluebells persist in gardens unaware of the long-ago destruction of their woodland habitat. Cities are fluid, and ever-expanding. It was ever thus, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ theory of how to solve the problems of the world’s mega-cities. They have evolved differently. Their populations are different. There can be no template.
Where I live now, in a small town in south-west England, there is a preponderance of what Victorians called ‘middling people’. There are struggling people too. We have food banks. But there is not the shameful pressure of obscenely gross economic inequality. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, in the mid-19th century, recorded lives more degraded than anything in London today. But not by much.
For the other end of the scale, read Anthony Trollope’s masterpiece The Way We Live Now (1875): it’s all there. The unscrupulous wealth-amassing financiers, the stock market frauds, the venalities of those we now call trust fund kids – it is still ‘the
way we live now’. Naturally, because global capitalism and social fairness exist in opposition.
We can’t start again. The cities are already there – intractable, organically sprawling and spawning. The only constant is inconstancy. The ‘great rebuilding’ of the Elizabethan period in England rendered old urban housing stock dispensable. Ever since there were cities, there have been new buildings going up (and in our time, up and up and up) continuously; and older buildings demolished, continuously, unless they become designated as ‘heritage’.
And the citizens? Whether native-born or immigrant, our lives there are as fluid as the city itself. York was my first city. Trips to London in my childhood started at York station – in itself, a universe.
Victoria Glendinning is a writer and critic, and the Vice President of the
Royal Society of Literature
As the train neared King’s Cross, I was mesmerised every time by the rows of narrow, grimy terraced brick houses, each with its narrow, grimy strip of garden, lining the tracks. (All swept away, decades ago.) This was London? London was not serious, to the provincial child. It meant ‘seeing the sights’, and unfamiliar aunts. Real life happened in the north. Part of me still believes that.
Unfaithful to York from young adulthood, I embraced other European cities before London took me in. And I, privileged by my work-life, took London in, liking its simultaneous anonymity and intimacy. I see a figure in black stalking the streets, no one knowing who or where I was, on my way to a club in a red-painted cellar, or to lunch with someone I probably should not have been having lunch with. And parties, from posh to sinister, and meeting enough extraordinary people to fill a bucket with pebbles were I to drop in their names. I did most of my writing work between 10pm and 2am. I had found my tribe. London is made up of intersecting tribes. Hence knife-crime, among other things.
London has no equivalent word for the French quartier or the Spanish barrio, though the latter term has come to mean something other. Yet London remains a cluster of residual or notional ‘villages’, which give stability. I heard this week about
a woman in Bermondsey who has never been north of the river. She just doesn’t see the need. My current London ‘village’, where I merely perch, is Borough Market, one stop from her Bermondsey. After the terrorist attack in 2017 there was an upsurge of solidarity – on behalf of our market traders, and of fellow-residents who, if they were in during the attack, were not allowed out beyond the police cordon for days; and if they were out, were not
allowed back in. There were cats who had to be fed. This was ‘community’ in action.
A return to normality meant women again crying out in the night (listen to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Last night I Heard a Woman Screaming’, best song ever); and homeless people lying outside London Bridge Tube
at the end of my street.
Yet it is so good to see bands of friends of mixed ethnicities and origins promenading on our Bankside. Brexit? You cannot put the clock back on this melding. I love too the shift to East London, and imagine in years to come the abandoned houses of billionaires in West London, reclaimed not only by wild greenery but by the dispossessed, and by the promise of change.
For nothing is for ever. Nothing remains the same. Not even the same remains the same.