London is a great place to live. I am always happy to return here after being away. Yet I grew up in a relatively rural environment. A village in fact. The sense of dislocation when one journeys from one to the other is acute, given the obvious, and sometimes less than obvious, contrasts.
I visited my parents over the weekend, where, on Sunday, a car driving down the hill upon which they live caused comment. It interrupted the quiet tranquility. Church bells rang from the valley below, somehow seeming more appropriate. On Saturday in my sister’s garden atop the hill, we watched a pair of buzzards floating on the thermals. They return there to mate every year.
Upon my return to Clapham I emerged from the tube into a real Bank Holiday weekend city-scape. ‘House of Common‘ was in full swing on the Common, with scantily clad festival goers spilling out into the bars and restaurants as they awaited Madness. Over a hundred thousand people were there over three days and this when an estimated million people attended the Notting Hill Carnival in west London.
Like so many before me I have travelled from country to town, to make my life and my living. Over five hundred years after Sir Richard Whittington became Lord Mayor of London, we still keep coming. Whittington was the real person upon whom the folklore tale of Dick Whittington and his Cat, a tale of rags to riches, is based. What would now be a story of social mobility, it is still performed in pantomime at Christmas time.
We are well represented in English literature too. From The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling to Dickens’ David Copperfield via Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the story of the country lad or lass who comes to the big city to make his or her fortune is a staple. Fielding’s eponymous hero finds his way to The Great Wen having been banished from the countryside, Dickens’ semi-autobiographical hero arrives having been made an orphan and Becky Sharp fenegles her way into London society and the Royal Court on the coat-tails of the Marquis of Steyne.
More recently Muriel Spark’s Dougal Douglas arrives to wreak havoc in the capital from Scotland in The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). While Northamptonshire boy Nick Guest arrives to experience joy and heartbreak in the Thatcher years in 2004’s Booker prize-winner The Line of Beauty from Alan Hollinghurst. In the same year Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004) focuses on a different perspective, the view from the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants. Monica Ali does something similar in Brick Lane (2004) with her Bangladeshi heroine. 2004 was a good year for novels about arrivals in the capital.
It’s an age-old tale, often accompanied by life lessons – Pip’s snobbery and indebtedness in Great Expectations, Nick’s naiveté about his ‘adopted’ family in Line. In White Teeth (2001) Zadie Smith chronicles the interaction between the newcomer and the existing population, the rejections and acceptances – the embittered and sad pensioner who frightens the children, the adoring lover who cannot believe his luck.
It’s a rich tapestry and it continues to grow, as new arrivals keep on coming. Just as I was glad to return.