The eyes of the world are on London this weekend for the diamond jubilee. It is the start of an Olympian summer for Britain’s capital, one that will enshrine its status as the world’s leading city.
Over the past decade I have seen my childhood city utterly changed: from a down-at-heel, if shabbily beautiful, place to a sleek, glistening, gilded metropolis. Tides of international money have flooded through the city, wiping much of its past away and pushing its best resources beyond the reach of most native Londoners. I could never afford the Victorian terrace house I grew up in; fees at my old school have hugely outstripped inflation to cater to children of the international elite.
If the gap between rich and not-so-rich in London is unbridgeable, the gap with the rest of the country is even wider. These days, the classic English divide is not the traditional one between north and south but the ever-growing chasm between London and Not London.
When I lived in New York five years ago, I found it odd that I rarely met any native New Yorkers. I now find it nearly as hard to find native Londoners in my home city. It has been said that New York is a different country from the rest of America; you can now say the same in spades about London. Even New York doesn’t dominate America the way London does Britain. In 2011 there were almost as many annual daily trips on the Tube – 1.1bn – as there are on the national overground rail network; half of all English bus journeys take place in London.
But the reality is that London is just too well-placed – geographically, sociologically, legally, linguistically, meteorologically – to be the preserve of us native Londoners any more. We can do little to turn back the inexorable forces that have propelled London to the world number one slot – after all, those forces have been working away for almost 1,000 years.
It was in the 11th century that London became first the informal capital of England – as the country’s biggest, richest city – and then the formal one; before William the Conqueror invaded, Canterbury was the religious capital, Winchester the secular one. Still, as late as 1338, London had a population of less than 40,000; in the same year, Florence’s population was 95,000. Over the next 700 years, London’s supremacy over the rest of England, Europe and then the world emerged and intensified.
London has now become a vortex for the young and talented, sucking them away from other English cities. It is the hub of choice for the international super-rich, too: more than half the homes worth £1m or more go to foreign buyers. The city’s economy moves independently of the rest of the country. During recessions, London is first in and first out of housing downturns, with the regions lagging behind by a year or two. The richest 10 per cent in Britain are 100 times richer than the poorest 10 per cent; the richest 10 per cent in London are 250 times richer than the poorest 10 per cent.
London owes much of that success to the happy accident of Britain’s geography: close to Europe but apart from it, protected by the English Channel from invasion – and from a shared currency. The rest of the world, too, is made that much more accessible by Britain’s island nature. The logistics of the British empire, and British naval dominance, would have been hard to arrange from anywhere else.
Then there is the temperate climate. No wonder Russian and Arab plutocrats flock here to escape punishing winters and summers. Throw in the rule of law, safe property rights and a layered history – step forward, Your Majesty – and you see why London has accelerated away from the rest of Britain and the world.
As if these natural and historical advantages weren’t enough, successive British governments have fallen over themselves to lay down the red carpet for tax exiles, both the respectable ones and the scoundrels who wash dirty money in the London laundry and seek protection from criticism behind our draconian libel laws.
Nature and man have conspired to create the ideal billionaire’s playground. The centre does in truth look pretty now, wrapped in bunting, lifted by a genuine surge of healthy patriotism. Outside the playground, though, there are deep pockets of poverty and unhappiness; they may not match the Dickensian levels of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, but they remain deeply depressing and dispiriting, nonetheless.
Still, as I wave a sad farewell to the old, homespun city of my childhood, I do admire the new genius of the planet’s most compelling hotspot. Most Londoners are happy to share the pleasures of their home town with the rest of the world. We just hope native Londoners don’t have to forsake those pleasures altogether.
The writer’s new book, ‘How England Made the English’, is published this week