Lenten reflections 2020-30: Go west, young man!

People who’ve not lived in London, or another place that has some clear territorial differences, may find it difficult to understand how or why a place can be one and at the same time divided.

By chance, I moved to west London when I left Jamaica, and for all of my school years, I was a child of that broad area, though drifting south in it. Now, for Londoners, west London proper means ‘north of the river’ (Thames), and its post codes begin with W, and it does not include those areas either to the south (SW post codes) or north (NW codes). So, our line comes from the ‘West End’ (W1) part of central London.

People don’t get cute and talk much about boroughs, but could be very wedded to their ‘manor’ (local areas), eg Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush, Chelsea etc., especially if one of the many London football clubs is in the conversation.

Londoners know that its main divider, literally, is the river Thames. Time was when black taxi drivers would say “I don’t go south of the river, mate.” Each side looks across the river with suspicion. Admittedly, many born and bred Londoners have abandoned their roots and moved all over the place, but not often will the straddle the ‘great divide’. I used to venture south to see my uncles with my parents and watched how areas like Peckham and Camberwell became blacker but that was not my interest, of course; south London was different. Part of the difference was more noticeable as one went south and east and the docks and its culture made an impression. I didn’t know then the same was noticable on the north side, as I didn’t go to the East End much, except when my parents went to places like Whitechapel and Aldgate East to Petticoat Lane Market–an huge open bazaar where many goods could be bought at cheap prices. It was the land of the salesman and you did not ask from where the goods came. “Off the back of a Larry, darling?” It was a must-go place for many immigrants for clothing and household wares: “I’ll give you one for a sixpence, or three for a shilling.”

Petticoat Lane Market in the 1970s

The East End was notorious for many immigrants because of its historical associations with racism, mainly directed at Jewish people, but there was also often a clear ‘for whites’ feel about many of the attitudes in the traditional east end of London, and the dockers’ tight bonds and that of many other trades that had been worked in for decades, even centuries, made that firmer.

But, the north-south divide in London was real, as it is between the two parts nationally. When my parents decided to move away from inner London, they went west and the suburbs that side were already well-known to us and parts further out into the nearer rural counties of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire were more familiar to me through my athletics associations. One of my favourite places was Chalfont St Peter/Chalfont St Giles, in the Chilterns; real English village life and not what your average Caribbean migrant would call ‘home’. 🙂

Chalfont St Peter

Naturally, my views of London are shaped by all of that. My aunt, with whom we lived for many years in London, also moved west before us and ended up in Southall, to where we followed. However, when she and her little Austin A40 decided to move to Clapham in south-west London, in the 1970s, that was a move too far. It was not yet on the map solidly for the gentrifiers but it would soon be earning its moniker of ‘Cla-am’ 🙂 But, it would be interesting to see that area and places like Tooting, which had been part of the rural fringe for merchants and the wealthy, transformed by the railways into the archetypical late-19th century London commuter suburb (‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’), transformed again by the improvements and extensions of the London Underground, and viola, its proximity to central London, its large houses and nice open spaces were sought after amenities.

One of the funny things about London, that I’m often reminded of is how public/council housing cemented certain people in place, and so it was for a lot of immigrants who were less-able to move as council tenants and had to see things change around them with feet stuck.

When I went to university, I did what would have seemed unthinkable in my youth; I went to live in east London, albeit in halls of residence in a leafy suburb of South Woodford, in what was really Essex. (I understand that the halls were demolished in the early-2000s.) For me, it was funny, because that end of the Underground had been known to me due a crush I had on a girl who lived in the amazingly-named Theydon Bois (pronounced ‘boy-es’, not ‘bwah’, as in French), and I had become acquainted with Epping Forest for long walks 🙂

Typically intriguing Epping Forest

When I was in London a few last month, one of my old friends was explaining Brexit to me in terms of whom he called ‘blow ins’, ie people who’d migrated within the UK, many to the south-east, and areas like Wales (to exploit lower property prices) and had little affinity to their new location, but were also not attracted by EU ‘benefits’. While he gave me his assessment, I couldn’t help think of what had happened to London over the past 30+ years, with new migrants and movers within to the eastern part of the city but also into areas such as parts of west London that had been sniffed at in the 1960s-through-1980s; the gentrifiers. Now, as a student of urban planning, I understand well the socioeconomics of gentrification and personally welcome it as a way of pulling up broadening areas that were tending down on an economic and social spiral of some sort. I understand the tensions and resentments, but I also know that memories are short and grasp of history weak, so many ‘displaced’ residents don’t see how their arrival displaced many, often wealthier residents, or how areas that had become ‘squalid’ were originally built to house middle- and upper-middle class people with their servants but changed with economic times that made such living too onerous. So, family mansions became bed-sits/flats, etc.

London’s attraction for many is it cosmopolitan feel and sense that you can be amongst ‘your kind’ almost anywhere. But, for Londoners, it’s not that but knowing your kind are just next door or at the bar in the pub, not a bunch of ‘foreigners’ from another postal code. 🙂

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)