Without fail, when you mention London, someone will say: “Oh that London. So dirty, so busy, so noisy, it’s too big, everyone is in such a hurry, no one smiles, there are too many people and everyone is fighting each other when they’re not blowing each other up, then there’s the everyday crime, what about the crime, you just don’t feel safe, do you? You need to be rich to enjoy London. London, no it’s fine for a day, to see something, I don’t know, a play or an exhibition, but London, no you can keep it. I could never live there. Who could?”
I don’t recognise that London. All I know is the London of this weekend, a weekend when I spent two days seeing old friends, sleeping in a hotel and meandering around with a backpack exchanging smiles with equally enamoured people. The London I worked and lived in for years and which still makes me giggly.
I walked from Paddington to Holborn, over two miles along Oxford Street, possibly the busiest part of London on a Saturday afternoon, but I wasn’t jostled or scowled at by anyone. I hopped along merrily.
I went to the British Library, where I saw children and adults from every race and religion, all pouring over Shakespeare’s sonnets, Jewish, Muslim and Christian texts, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and the musical notes of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. I visited the Magna Carta; Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition, where I viewed the 800 year old charter for freedom and human liberty, which has resonated and been reworked into modern human rights acts and bills ever since. I overheard an American man say to his wife how moved he was. I heard a small Indian girl explain to her brother what a “manuscript” is. I saw three people of three different races standing side by side reading the same historical Islamic text.
I saw people in cranes and people in high visibility jackets sweating in the stifling heat. I saw smiling bar staff and waiters and hotel staff. I saw apartments being built, restaurants being refurbished and new cafes opening. I saw rich people and poor people, people who are clearly busy being the best at whatever they do, working hard to live in this city and people to whom life has been unfair and cruel.
I saw a mother of a tiny baby speak cautiously but kindly to a homeless man who had been staring in awe at them both. I helped an old man buy his ticket from a machine. I saw a woman having to choose between offers of help up the escalator with her buggy and two children. I saw a woman rustling around in her bag for change so a stranger could use the Ladies toilet in Paddington station. I saw Dads with children on their shoulders, grandparents with excited children in museums, I saw every colour and every race and heard every language and no one seemed to want to hurt anyone else.
I walked through Tavistock Square, one of the scenes of the 7/7 bombings ten years ago today. I thought about that morning. But all around people were laughing and talking and heading to see and do exciting things with this glorious sunny day. Around the corner, people played tennis. Most people don’t want to blow you up or shoot you or frighten you. Most people will stop to tell you that you’ve dropped your train ticket on the ground. Most people will smile if you accidentally run into them. Most people will help you if you clearly need it, without even being asked. Normal people, at ground level, are mostly decent, gentle and kind. It’s dangerous to forget that.
Yes, there are a lot of people in London. But at least half, if not more, of my enjoyment was watching other people enjoy London, seeing their reactions and interactions. I don’t want a quiet, sedate London all to myself where I don’t have to wait patiently in polite queues or side step smiling tourists or peer over somebody’s shoulder to read a museum notice.
You can keep that London.