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May 23, 2014 1:11 pm

A city in a world of its own

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‘London has become like Constantinople – the centre of a trading empire divorced from its hinterland’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of London logo©Shonagh Rae

About two decades ago, my brother and I combined all our savings and bought a small, scruffy flat in Gloucester Road, west London. Back then, property did not seem so crazily expensive (in 1991, the UK real estate market had crashed sharply). Nor did the residents of that white stucco building seem wildly cosmopolitan. They mostly considered themselves English and were either young professionals or “Sloanes” (a tribe of upper-class Brits who once lived around London’s Sloane Square, immortalised in Ann Barr and Peter York’s The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook).

How times change. My brother and I have long since sold that flat but I still have many friends in the area, and know that very few of the people now living in and around Gloucester Road are English; the Sloanes have been displaced by French, Russians, Italians, Americans, Danes, Canadians and Spanish – almost every nationality except white Britons.

Yet, while some are temporary residents or occasional visitors, most of these new arrivals are not really foreigners. The majority have put down roots in London, send their children to the local schools and make it their home, often because they have marriages that span national labels. Indeed, when I look around the area today, I have a sense that London has become the 21st-century financial equivalent of 15th-century Constantinople: the quasi city state that sat at the centre of an empire but which was increasingly divorced from the hinterland around it.

Of course, one key difference is that neither the British nor European government “rules” this modern trading hub; private commercial interests, such as banks, hold sway. And, unlike those Ottoman rulers, the UK government is not very effective at extracting tribute, aka taxes – which is one reason why those French, German, Danes, Italians and Russians flood in. But, like Constantinople, one of the joys of London is that it is wonderfully multi-ethnic and largely tolerant – albeit due to the grubby reality that what unites the multi-ethnic elite is commerce – a desire to make money.

Is this a bad thing? Yes, if you want the UK to exist as a truly cohesive nation state. After all, the arrival of these wealthy professionals has widened the gap between the elite and everyone else. Look at London house prices compared with those elsewhere in England (the flat that my brother and I once owned has surely risen about sixfold in price since we bought it). And when some economists from Deutsche Bank recently looked at the city, they discovered, astonishingly, that there was less correlation in growth patterns between London and the rest of the UK than between the different members of the eurozone; London is driven by global trading flows, not the British economy. “The overall pattern that emerges . . . is one of the rest of the UK dancing to the capital’s tune but out of time,” they wrote.

. . .

But if you look at London in its own terms, as a European city-state, it is hard to not feel a sense of excitement. Just like Constantinople, this new urban centre is buzzing with cultural blending and creative collisions; there is entrepreneurial energy and sunny optimism.

To put it another way, just as the US has benefited over recent centuries from the arrival of energetic immigrants from Europe and elsewhere, London flourishes on the energy created by waves of wealthy (and not so wealthy) immigrants from continental Europe. And, as with 19th-century America, the people who move borders tend to be the most dynamic.

I don’t see much sign of this ending soon. Never mind the fact that city-states seem set to become more dominant in the 21st century (just look at Zurich and Singapore). What is most striking is how this globe-trotting tribe is now reproducing itself into the next generation.

A few years ago, my own daughters attended a school near Gloucester Road, which used to be a bastion of white English families or Sloanes. By the time my daughters arrived, I noticed that few of their classmates had two white British parents. Most were (at least partly) European and considered London home – but were also wildly cosmopolitan, and were being raised to consider this utterly normal.

In a sense, it is a powerful expression of that united European dream. The only irony is that it lies outside the core of Europe. But therein lies the power and paradox of London – and of that European dream too.


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