To Finn, London was a huge city, monolithic and all-encompassing. Its size and the sheer number of people who lived and worked there seemed almost nightmarish sometimes. He had a feeling that parts of the city were always overcrowded no matter what time or day of the week. A chronic shortage of housing had created terrible conditions for many people, whole families lodged in single rooms of boarding houses and hotels, thousands of people, young and old, lived on the streets; Finn imagined that Lon¬don had always been Dickensian. The wealthy areas of the city remained the same, comfortable, secure, even opulent on occasion. The sweatshops, the impoverished hospitals, the ill-equipped factories, the large hostels-for homeless, rootless people whose numbers had not declined — these things had always been part of the hidden fabric of London, never a part of the past.
A perspective on the city firmly rooted in the 1980s and my/Finn’s Canadian point of view. London still seems crowded to me, though this is part of what I love about the city; but it’s also part of what I enjoy most about Canada – the lack of crowds. A problem with doing anything in London is always that millions of other people want to do it too. Sometimes, like with the Notting Hill Carnival, and when, for instance, the Sultan’s Elephant came to town, this is great – no one wants to have a Carnival to themselves. At other times, the very idea of the crowds can defeat me, preventing me from doing things and going places. In the eighties homelessness was a real very present problem and there were many people living on the streets; but at the same time there was a great deal of empty housing – like the houses my friends and I squatted. It’s a bit clumsy, the idea that the city had ‘always been Dickensian’, though effective enough, I suppose. Dickens didn’t create these conditions, they had always been there. However, even in the 1980s London was a more industrial city than it is now.
When Finn first arrived at the beginning of the 1980s, London appealed to him aesthetically. In 1982 it was in many ways still a city of the late 1940s and early 50s. The red telephone kiosks, the open-backed double-decker buses, the decor in the Underground, the very street names and shopfronts and the yellow glow that lights the city at night as the slick black cabs rush back and forth appealed to Finn’s bright Canadian eyes, previously accustomed to the new and somewhat shiny cities of North America, as old-fashioned and from another time. There was something about the men in their long wool overcoats and scarves, the women in hats with their lipsticked mouths and cold cheeks, that allowed Finn to fantasise he was in a different era, an extended Brief Encounter of sorts.
A lot of that had changed. The city was being forced very quickly out of the past and into some warped view of the future. The Americans were marching in, their businesses transforming the West End. But the grime still remained and, in fact, the amount of litter and street rubbish was increasing. The tops and sides of the buildings were still filthy with lay¬ers of London air pollution. Finn found something intensely human about the dirt and debris as it blew through the Underground tunnels while the trains pulled in and out. The squalor spoke of a kind of sluttishness beneath the terse exterior of Britain; to Finn it suggested histories he had not begun to imagine. He did not want London to be clean because cleanliness could mean newness and sterility and he liked to think there was still something seething in London, something left unexplained and unknown. He even liked to subscribe to the popular myth from abroad that British people do not bathe; this suggested a depravity and lasciviousness that mainstream British culture seemed to be trying very hard to deny.
In Bonnington Square where I lived there was a gap in the terrace where a WW2 bomb had destroyed a house; when I first came to London I was amazed to find you could still visibly track and trace the war its attendant havoc. As I say here, the city has been transformed since then – and, in fact, many of those blackened old buildings have been cleaned. But beneath this glossy surface, London still seethes.
Mary, on the other hand, did not notice the dirt. She had grown up with it; she would only notice if it disappeared. Mary bathed often enough — Finn exempted her from his theories - and she loved the way that the distinctive, diesel smell of London would engulf her when she arrived back having been away. In the winter that smell was sharp and hoary, in the summer heavy and muggy: it evoked immediate and kind memories of her childhood and a London which she believed in her heart to be one of the great cities of the world. And, Mary believed, a multi-cultural city, although it did not like publicly to admit to that. A city full of people from everywhere imaginable, all sorts of faces and food. The milieu in which Mary lived was varied and rich, an environ¬ment where all previous notions of Englishness should have been rendered obsolete but, of course, were not. The English clung to some indefinable past, a past of their own imagining, of an Englishness or, in some cases, Britishness that somehow excluded India, Ireland, the West Indies, Canada, Africa, Australia, despite the fact that those places have long been a part of Britain’s sociological and political map. The past of an individual is a dangerous, imagined minefield; the past of a nation a battle zone. Not even an English woman like Mary, much more politically sophisticated than her parents, could escape from that.
You can tell I was young when I wrote that ‘much more politically sophisticated than her parents’ – only a callow youth would write a line like that. Clunky and, most likely, wrong. But the content of this paragraph was heady stuff for me, and remains so. After my first book came out I was invited onto the editorial board of a political magazine called ‘Emergency’ – the board included my now publisher Pete Ayrton and cultural theorists Paul Gilroy* and Vron Ware. Paul had published his book ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’, and his work in this field influenced me profoundly, though I doubt I understood any of it fully. But even half-digested, half-understood, the discussions I witnessed (I hardly said a word myself) at those editorial meetings have informed my thinking to this day.
* Writing this led me to google Paul, who is of course all over the web, including on Twitter – so now I can follow his tweets.