London doesn't have the best of reputations. That might be because it's full of toxic smog; statistically one of the most dangerous places in the UK; and, as you may have read about literally anywhere at any point in the past decade, a ludicrously expensive place to live.
Want some more depressing facts? Okay: social housing residents are being carted out of London, splintering families and communities, while developers build floating swimming pools in luxury apartment blocks nobody will ever live in. Gentrification is making the whole of inner London look like Guildford. There's a massive M&M's store in Leicester Square that has somehow managed to become a cultural landmark. We've written about all that, as has pretty much everyone else, because it's all stuff that's impossible to ignore.
However, for all its council-mandated social cleansing, novelty cafes and Keep Calm souvenirs, London is still an incredible place. For Londoners, their city is unique, incredibly diverse and defined not just by landmarks or statistics, but people. Although it's not perfect, to them it's the best city in the world.
Here are the stories of eight Londoners:
Britain's response to the refugee crisis in Europe has been pretty poor. With the government doing the bare minimum to help, volunteer-run organisations like The Bike Project in South London – set up a couple of years ago – are offering refugees and asylum seekers the support they need when trying to build a new life in a strange city. The project fixes up old bikes and donates them to refugees, teaching them mechanic skills and offering them support along the way.
Tam, 19, came to London from Ethiopia a few years ago, arriving in a bitterly cold March to join his dad, who'd arrived in the UK a few years before. He lives with his parents, brother and two sisters, and although he spoke almost no English when he arrived, he's now studying Sports Management at Lewisham College. He found it difficult to talk to people at first, but he's now made friends at college and through The Bike Project, and can't imagine moving back to Ethiopia any time soon.
For him, London is a place of opportunity:
Starting life in London is one of the best things that can happen. If you work, you can get everything that you want. At the beginning it's hard, but afterwards, once you get used to it, things get easier. Going to college, you get the support that you need. There's a lot of support here in London if you look – everywhere you go there are people and places that can help you. There are a lot of organisations, like this [The Bike Project] that help people.
For the first year it was difficult; I'd stay at the back of the class and didn't know anyone. I had no English – only things like "hi" or "hello" – but now I have friends and talk to people. I would like to go to university, or maybe get a good job and build from it. But first I'll do my GCSEs and see how far I can get.
The whole country is in the midst of a housing crisis, but in London, where rents are rising fast and councils are selling off what little social housing remains, the situation is especially critical. Luxury penthouses and million pound "affordable" flats are replacing the homes communities have lived in for years, but campaigners are fighting back.
Kayleigh Greatorex is part of the Focus E15 campaign, which started two years ago when a group of young mums were threatened with eviction in Newham, East London. Kayleigh's aunt Jasmin was one of those facing homelessness. While the threat of eviction is still very real, the campaign has succeeded in raising a huge amount of public support and forced the council to grant the campaigners some concessions.
Kayleigh remembered the support shown by locals after campaigners occupied an empty house on land the council was trying to sell off, proving community still exists in the capital, despite what listicles about the tube being full of selfish narcissists might suggest.
So many people were bringing stuff – so many people. At one point, [the council] were trying to get us out, and when they couldn't do that they ended up breaking our water pipes so we had no water. But within literally ten minutes there was so much water; I've never seen so much water in my life. There were massive bottles, little bottles – it was just amazing. You had people bringing us food every day. It was just incredible seeing how that can happen.
We're not going to stop. Even when we do stop the housing part, we'll go on to something else, and we'll make it even bigger, because there's more than just a housing crisis right now. We'll show solidarity and we'll show that, hand in hand, we can all do this together."
The Soho OG
Trisha Bergonzi came to Soho from Liverpool when she was 17, in the early 1960s. She's spent her life running The New Evaristo club on Greek Street, at first with her late husband and now with the help of her son. The club – running for 70 years, and known to regulars as Trisha's – claims to be the oldest members' club still open in Soho, and Trisha told me that what started out as a gambling den for Italian waiters and barmen has become a regular hangout for Soho's luvvies and media types.
The club itself has barely changed over the years, with photos of old regulars hanging on the wall alongside faded stars like Humphrey Bogart and Sinatra. Even the frayed green tablecloths are a hangover from the old gambling days. Trisha worries that rising rent and changing licensing laws mean the club's days could be numbered, but its continued existence shows that even if Soho's seedy image has been cleaned up, the characters who made the area legendary are still there:
You get a lot of the media here – theatre people, actors and that. It's mixed. Older people as well. We open at 5:30PM and you'll get the older lot at the bar; about six of them come in every day. My eldest member is 82. He's a sports journalist, and he's the oldest one now. He comes in twice a week. I say every day that I'm so sorry I didn't keep a diary. This would make a great soap. It's such a funny place – honestly, the characters are amazing.
The LGBT Veteran
Gay's the Word opened in Bloomsbury in 1979 as the first lesbian and gay bookshop in the UK. Now, it's the only surviving shop of its kind and regularly hosts discussion groups and events to support the LGBT community in London.
Jim McSweeney first went in as a customer in 1984 and has been working there since 1989. Over the years he's watched London's gay scene go from a few underground venues scattered around the city to the appearance of mainstream clubs like Heaven and Village, as well as entire LGBT-friendly areas, like Old Compton Street in Soho.
Recently, apps like Grindr have somewhat relegated the need for gay clubs, as people no longer need specialised locations to meet. However, London's gay scene is still one of the most vibrant in the world:
There's always that energy of people coming in, where you can be yourself. It's a hard city and people might step over you, but there's always that energy, and there's always renewal. I love talking to new generations coming in, talking about their experiences and that energy.
London has its fair share of legendary characters and individuals. Bruno Wizard came here as a teenager in the 1960s, survived the punk movement of the 70s, nearly didn't survive the drug-fuelled decades that followed and was briefly homeless aged 59. He was part of punk's first wave, playing venues like the Roxy and Brixton's Fridge as front man of The Rejects. His band later changed their name to The Homosexuals when they veered dangerously close to mainstream success. Now in his sixties, he's still performing with The Homosexuals and, in 2013, was the focus of the film The Heart of Bruno Wizard.
For him, London as a location doesn't mean a lot. He's lived all over the world, and the city hasn't always treated him well. However, talking to him, what comes across strongly is Bruno's belief in the artists, thinkers and weirdos who have found themselves here. He remembered being there at the start of the punk movement:
Andrew [Czezwoski] and Susan [Carrington, founders of the Roxy] got a big building round the corner from where the Roxy was, just in what is now the grand square in Covent Garden. It was a bomb site, and they started putting on gigs. They had rehearsal rooms, and people like Chrissie Hynde, Steve Strange, various American punk bands that came over, would rehearse there, and we rehearsed there. They put the first ever gig of The Slits on there; 15-year-old Ari Up jumped up on stage and had a pair of knickers over her jeans. Sid Vicious famously shouted out: "You're only up there 'cos Johnny Rotten's knobbing your mum!"
Without The Roxy, punk wouldn't have happened the way it did. They created that focus. It really was like a magnifying glass; it took all that energy and set the whole thing on fire. And everybody who was going to be anything in punk – including managers and agents, stylists, photographers, filmmakers, journalists, fans, whatever – they all went to the Roxy. Ninety percent of that whole revolution happened because of that focus.
The Former Gang Member
Sheldon Thomas has been involved with London gangs for over 30 years. As a member of one in the 1970s, he witnessed shootings and experienced racism at the hands of the police and the National Front. After Bernie Grant, one of Britain's first black MPs, helped Sheldon find a way out, he started to help other gang members build a life away from crime.
Now he runs Gangsline, a charity dedicated to engaging with gang members and helping local authorities understand the problems they face. Sheldon knows that life as a young black person in London has never been easy; he says a lack of jobs and opportunities makes it hard for new generations to see any alternative to joining a gang, and with gangs controlling London's drug trade it can offer easy money, too. However, Sheldon still sees London's young people as special, a generation worth investing in:
"I think the uniqueness of London is, among young people, racism is almost non-existent. I think white kids and black kids do not see colour, whereas white adults and black adults see colour – but I don't think children see colour like we used to, like I did when I was young.
So if you're gonna say, 'What has London got that many cities like New York don't have?' I'd say we're more integrated than America. The reason why we should invest in young people is because they don't have the hangups we as adults have."
London being a city of incredible cultural – and as a cultural influence on the world – is a point often made. But when you're trying to work, eat, sleep and find some time to enjoy yourself, it's easy to miss the absolute wealth of things on offer. As the host of the Londonist Out Loud podcast, N Quentin Woolf spends his days seeking out the hidden culture and history of the city. He recalls first coming to London as a kid, sitting on a Routemaster bus with his granddad and struggling to take in the diversity and life unfolding around him. Now, he's a novelist, and uses the city's rich creative scene to bring his work to life:
It's easy to take for granted the fact that London is a global hub for so many creative worlds: fashion, dance, theatre, art, television, literature and so on. Any one of these would be something special, but the fact that they all intersect here acts as a multiplier. If you want to shoot a film, it's so much easier to find yourself in the orbit of great costume designers, or sound engineers, or actors, and for there to be enough of them that you can find co-collaborators on the same wavelength as you, who are willing to give something a try.
Artists are highly entrepreneurial, and London is a great place to make stuff happen; it's also diverse enough for you to find an audience, and small enough to stay connected.
Asifa grew up in Southall, West London in a traditional Muslim family. He knew he was gay from an early age, but there was no one in his conservative community who he could to turn to. At 16 he convinced his parents to let him attend the BRIT School for Performing Arts in south London, and it was there he finally felt truly comfortable.
Clubs like Heaven have become mainstream enough to attract straight clubbers on a Saturday night, but London's gay Asian scene is still a refuge for those who can't come out in their own community. Asifa started performing drag a few years ago at nights like Club Kali. Appearing under the name Asifa Lahore, he's Britain's first Muslim drag act.
Asifa points out how London can be whatever you want to make of it.
I'd go between Southall and Croydon and start to make up excuses to my mum and dad about where I was going at the weekends. They weren't aware that I was going nightclubbing at gay venues, so, I mean, at the time, definitely in my late teens, the centre of London was like an expression of who I was. It allowed me to be myself, because I was away from family and community eyes.
You've got gay Asian nights all over the place in London. There's North London, where Club Kali is, then I actually set up a night in Ealing in West London. East London has its gay Asian drag parties left, right and centre in places you'd never imagine. You'd see just a normal Indian restaurant in, say, Ilford, and in the basement they'd be having a gay Asian drag party, with 100 or 200 people.
It's interesting; for me, London is all about what's behind everything. What you see in the daytime is totally different in the night time.
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