London Calling

Emily Passey

I don’t think I’ve been obvious enough about this point just yet, but it seems like a very logical way to sum up the first half of this amazing term. London is really freaking cool. I am starting to feel as though I am able to paint a picture of London because I’ve been seeing it daily for over a month.
I am constantly moved by the ethnic diversity, which is truly unlike anywhere else, and also at the simultaneous history and modernity that can be seen, especially in the architecture. In every era people have written without consensus on what this city is. Here’s my attempt.
First of all, every time you get off the Tube, you’re in a different scene. Life is virtually different from block to block. The city grew up as quite a mlange of towns, while also going through waves and waves of immigration, creating the varied boroughs that make up greater London. It is diverse ethnically and architecturally, both of which I will try to exemplify here.
London is not like New York or Chicago where you know which blocks of which streets, which high schools, and which churches belong to which ethnicity. For Londoners, a place that is just over 50-percent populated by one ethnicity (or at least one smallish geographical area) is an ethnic neighborhood. But that’s only 50 percent, which means that the other 50 percent come from everywhere else, and I mean everywhere.
Speaking of London’s diversity: I had the chance to witness something totally London this past weekend. It was called “Eat London,” and we did. Twelve voluntary, aid, or community groups hailing from different boroughs spent months planning and rehearsing their building of a square mile of London completely out of food.
The roads were dense gingerbread, the Thames was a river of Perrier (though, just a note, it would have been better represented with Coke), the London Eye was pizza, Harrods was fruitcake, etc.
One group was a community group for Turkish women and they made their whole mile out of Turkish food. Another was a group for older Bangladeshi people who put together the Tower of London with samosas and pakora (Google it). Almost every mile had cake, curry and couscous, no matter who built it.
It was totally free, I’d like to add. And everyone had completely unlimited access to as much London as they could stuff themselves with (of course there were queues, but they were relatively civilized).
London is also different from other cities because while a huge part of it was planned and erected during the great era of urban growth in the 19th century, the city has many different pasts. First, it was a Roman city, which is where the name comes from.
You can see the last remaining relics of the Roman city wall just across a busy street from the Tower of London, and, improbably, right next to a really ugly modern building.
Then think about Elizabethan London (Shakespeare’s time): the London where brothels lined the South Bank, where theaters sprung up against the will of the upper classes, the London of the Plague.
Fast-forward to the era of the printing press madness which has shaped London incredibly to this day as a city of words; the time of the one civil uprising Great Britain has seen; the bustling place of William Hogarth and his comrades in city satire, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.
There are hundreds of pubs and inns that are marked for which author drank there, from Johnson to Dickens to Keats to whomever you can think of.
Fast-forward again to Dickens when suburbs were growing and growing and shortly after when some of the most marvelous museums in the world were helping create a new cultural center in the City of Westminster and the boroughs directly next door.
There are churches that have switched back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, depending on who reigned and who wrote and who thought what.
There is prewar London and postwar London and postmodern London and throughout all of this very little architectural integrity has been upheld. From the South Bank, just across from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the view of said cathedral is almost entirely obscured by hideous, dark gray office buildings.
The South Bank itself seems to be some sort of experiment in postmodern buildings, which are largely weird and ugly.
London celebrates with an edible map built by learning-disabled students and elderly immigrants. London builds new buildings on top of the site of one of the more famous of the first theaters to be built.
London takes as its symbol a building shaped like a glass pickle. London is English, British, European and most noticeably global. London is unplanned, fluid, anachronistic, historical and new.