Full disclosure. I’m from Birmingham. And I love Britain’s Second City. But I’ve been flirting with London for nearly 40 years and I’ve been here full-time for over 15 years. When I first came to live in London – south of the river – I travelled with a baseball bat for security. Now this might sound extreme, but remember, no one from my family had ever been further from Brum than Wales for summer holidays and I was coming to LIVE in That London – where the streets are paved with crime. My mate’s Dad told me not to make eye contact with anyone. It was dangerous. The night before I left, I had a farewell party at Traceys Nightclub in Redditch. Yep, a quality venue. My younger sister and some of my friends were inconsolable. I might have been going to Australia, not 100 miles down the road. But to a working class family, London felt that huge.
It didn’t take me too long to realise that I’d no more need a baseball bat in London than I would in Kings Heath, Birmingham. I was working with (brilliant) children in care for Social Services. A colleague introduced me to a voluntary radio station in Thamesmead, south-east London and after turning up as a volunteer ready to make the tea I ended up presenting a breakfast show. I won my first ever award in Thamesmead. The Tavy Bridge Social Club’s Services to The Community Pennant! (I must find out if the club still exists!) Tavy Bridge was where much of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was filmed. The club members were mainly ex-dockers from the East End, and they were very welcoming to a young Brummy lad. I wasn’t really drinking either, so it wasn’t about buying rounds at the bar. They were just really nice, welcoming people from That London!
And that was my first experience of how this Centre of Empire, this City of Progress, this Sceptred Isle, this Seat of Kings, where the Streets are paved with Gold (not crime!) was actually just as small and personal as the blessed council estate of my birth.
Recently I was at the launch of the Fitzrovia Arts Festival. (You can hear the recording I did for our podcast on this site.) And what really comes across – the essence of the people both involved in the creation and attendance of the event – was passion for their area and each other. And that’s why the art gallery owner in Fitzrovia reminded me of the corner shop owner on my Billesley council estate. Passion and love for their area and the people who live there. In spite of the huge differences between incomes and upbringings, both women would have been best friends, I think. Because they instinctively know life is about people and places, not property and profit. And so I’ve found all over London. Be it the fabulous Soho Society, the Fitzrovia Trust, Covent Garden Community Association or, of course Trust Thamesmead – from Canary Wharf to the Old Kent Road, from Ealing to Elephant and Castle, London is all about people living in communities. Even Newham, in East London, where the average resident only stays for two years, has some fantastic community groups.
So leave your baseball bat at home, young Bohemian. London, like every major world city, has its threats and dangers. But it will accept and love you, if you open yourself to it. It’s about community…