Two and a Half Cheers for London

Aug 12, 2010
*Special to asia!
-A +A

The city takes you as its own even though you’re speaking in a strange accent, clutching a brand-new A-Z, and asking for directions to the nearest Peranakan restaurant.


80 Misty Impressions: French artist Claude Monet paints London’s Houses of Parliament through the fog. (Photo credit:

I hate London. I hate it so much that I love it, because it’s been some time since anything has aroused such passion in me. I hate London for all the usual reasons people hate it – the crowds, the noise, the high prices, the traffic, the pollution, the questionable fashion sense, the clime, the grime, the crime.

But the thing with London is, it allows you to hate it – with equanimity, with good humour, with a kind of wry generosity of spirit that you can’t really find anywhere else.

Indeed, Londoners will often join you in expressing how much they hate their town, too. They will, in their usual deprecating, doleful way, tell you how the city administrators can’t run a bath, let alone the 2012 Olympics, that the English football team is rubbish, the Royal family is barmy, the government is bollocks, the economy is buggered, all politicians are wankers, all bankers are tossers, all artists are knobs, the latest architecture is shite, the tax system is a piss-take, the weather is pants and the airport is utter balls. And then they will morosely quaff their fourth pint of beer.

To listen to a Londoner moan about the state of affairs, to scan the front pages of the city’s most august news publications – the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times, Hello!, Heat – you would think that there is nothing left to live for, that we are sunk, that the world is coming to an end. Everything is going down the tubes. Or worse, the Tube.

Ah, the Tube. You’ve got to love the way how, at every available opportunity, a placid voice via its PA system tells you to “mind the gap”, in what must surely be the ultimate public example of being in denial. Because the gap, that crack of a few inches between the open door of a train and the platform, that’s really the least of the Underground’s problems, isn’t it?

No, if that placid voice were to be absolutely honest, it would be saying, “Mind the timetables. They can be very wrong. Mind the District line traveling westward, where the route branches out in five directions from Earl’s Court. You will have to watch the signboards very carefully so you don’t hop on the wrong train. If, that is, the signboards are working. Mind the entire weekend, when all East-going tunnels may be closed for renovation, but you won’t know unless you check the tiny blackboard placed at the darkest corner of the station. Mind the drunkards after 11 p.m. on any line going anywhere. Mind the oven-like conditions in summer. Forget the gap. The gap is not important.”

Then there is the cityscape. Large swathes of London are so ugly they take your breath away for all the wrong reasons. One can’t help but develop a morbid fascination for the multiple scars of highways running across the metropolis, the dismal and terrifying blobs of concrete that seem to appear out of nowhere and serve no definable purpose, the weird smells steaming from the Thames – all these most often perceived through a thin grey fog.

But, to its credit, the city does not pretend to be pretty. It is a huge, historic, creaky agglomeration of people and buildings that has seen so many things across the years that it feels confident enough to look terrible. Quite simply, after surviving the Great Fire, the Black Death, Jack the Ripper, the Blitz, the 1980s Brixton Riots and the Spice Girls, London has nothing left to prove.


81 What the fog: Tower Bridge enshrouded in mist (Photo credit: Simon Goldenberg)


It is hard not to feel affection for a place that welcomes your disaffection. A place that welcomes almost everything and everybody, in fact, because the city is a bewildering array of ethnicities, nationalities, cuisines, costumes and languages. Amid such a rich and varied stew, nobody is really a stranger. A Londoner will regard you as a fellow resident even though you’re speaking in an accent she cannot immediately place, you’re clutching a brand-new, large-print London A-Z, and you’re asking for directions to the nearest Peranakan restaurant. (“You take a left and then another left, dearie.”)

London is a weird city of contrasts, being at once class-conscious and all-inclusive. The city is obsessed about putting everyone into slots, based on ancestry, accent, finances, career, hobbies, East/West, North/South, Left/Right, Waitrose/Tesco. And yet, from End to End, she somehow manages to find a slot for everybody, in every conceivable situation, expressing every possible viewpoint.

London will take your curiosity about it, your disdain for it, your interest in it, your love for it, your ambivalence about it, your admiration for it, your loathing for it, your flirtation with it, your indifference toward it, suck it all up and contrive to make it part of her teeming whole. The city is also magnanimous about many things. Her museums are free. Her parks are large, beautiful and made for lolling about in. Her magnificent libraries are welcoming. Her summer calendar alone is a dizzying array of art fairs, literary events, pop concerts, open-air markets, food festivals, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Proms and Wimbledon.

And then, there’s the strange reticence most Londoners have, a kind of mild, almost baffled self-effacement. Londoners, you get the feeling, want to go about their business without much to-do and hoo-ha. The city does not flaunt itself.


82 Monumental treasures: Big Ben vs. Godzilla, er, the Merlion (Photo credit: Debby Ng)

clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

Contact Clarissa