London, Paris, New York, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, Rio — the biggest cities in this world: not only are these cities the economic powerhouses of the world, but they also represent a rich cultural heritage, a diverse demographic, a confluence of humanity from all corners of this earth. Above all, these cities have a character — a strong demonstration of resilience to forge ahead in times of despair and never giving up. Having lived most of my life in Calcutta, I was tempted to put Calcutta on this list as well but then refrained from it, avoiding a faux-pas. Despite being a big city with a rich cultural legacy, it would not be just to assume Calcutta belonged to the same echelon with the rest for two vital reasons. It does not have the same effect on the world economy and hence the demographic, although diverse, is not by any means comparable to the other cities. Secondly, it has never been challenged to test its steadfastness and even with the lack of it, the city is in the way of fading into dilapidation and decadent oblivion. This test of character marks the biggest anomaly why Calcutta cannot be put within the same bracket with the other big cities. These musings are not either on the city of my dreams, the cultural capital of the world — Paris, as I have never experienced Paris, and going by Le gens non-Parisiens, Paris isn’t that spectacular! Rather, this is a collection of thoughts on the city, which has toppled Paris in recent years as the cultural capital of the world, London.
Before arriving in the UK, London, like any other big city, was a collage of landmarks and famous people, more than anything else. My uncle, who was a sailor, used to tell tales of London, especially the rain. In my mind’s eye, I had a picture of London, covered with a dusky blanket of smog and drizzling rain, the faint light from the gas lamps shining on the wet cobbled streets. Perhaps this was imagery created from Sherlock Holmes books more than anything else. With time, more images were added to that vision, especially the landmarks I became accustomed to — Tower Bridge to Buckingham Palace to Big Ben, and of course Lord’s cricket ground. And holding all these pieces together like a thread was the Thames, running from west to east supplying lifeblood to the city. Another image permeates to the mind, of a dark river swarming with merchant ships importing and exporting merchandise from all corners of the world, a very busy docklands strewn with some sacks here, leaking barrels there and an overall sense of urgency all round.
As the adage goes “putting a face to the name”, I had all these visions in my mind but they were distant dreams, of seeing London with my own eyes, which possibly never meant to be materialised. The opportunity came when in 2007, I got the score I expected in GMAT and knew everything else going as per plan, I’ll be either in the UK or “the other side of the pond” studying. I was due a holiday after all the hard work and decided to visit the UK for a week in December. Although I have not seen much of London and mostly stayed in Oxford, London was en route between Heathrow and Oxford and back, as I went to central London on arrival to see a friend who’d accompany me to the coach station afterwards.
On that very first encounter, I felt London was enormous and congested, yet full of life and urgency all around me — people running past in the escalators, bikes whizzing past the crowded streets, people reading books or newspapers in the packed tube where they could barely stand. The vastness was apparent when I realised it took much longer than anticipated to arrive at Central London. As the slow Piccadilly Line tube trundled through the suburbs, I was in a way disheartened to see stumpy little houses all the way, not the skyscrapers I thought would block my view. Little did I know then that on that aspect, Europe is so different compared to the rest of the world, where the burgeoning population has already driven people to expand upwards. In a way, I felt reassured as the train approached the inner part of the city and few tall buildings with bright coloured panels would catch the view, that we are getting closer to the main city. The images have completely transformed, when I arrived at Holborn, the heart of central London, with the number of people almost overwhelming. Despite Calcutta with about 15 million people was much denser than London, the streets there are never so crowded, yet function without any chaotic disorder — a regular sight in Calcutta. A sense of order was immediately visible, whether it’s commuters standing on the right-hand side of the escalator to let the ones through on the left side, pedestrians stopping the moment the signal turned red or queuing up keeping a decorum, it seemed to be working like a clockwork. A plethora of memories will stay etched in my mind — visiting LSE, London’s answer to Oxbridge, a vague recollection of going to Elephant and Castle, spicy chicken wings from a local shop, an eerie walk to Victoria bus terminal…But if there is one that highlighted my first glimpse of London, it will be the escalator out of Holborn tube station, the nigh vertical ascent with a sea of people around, the daylight filtering through at the end of the escalator which seemed far away, and there was I, waiting for the ascent to the end and witness the city I have been longing to see for two weeks! That ride up was surreal and every time I went up that escalator since then, I always remembered that very first moment I was there.
I was back there in less than a year, heading to a new destination, Cranfield. Getting my room keys I headed off to London the same night to meet a friend, with a plan to do all necessary shopping the day after. I went to the Southeast London, and that was the beginning of an acquaintance, seeing London from various shades of light. That part of the city in the southeast was not the most desirable of the places, and there was news of knife crimes, murders, burglary; in the vicinity of the tower bridge road area. Every time I went to that area, I was always alert, anxious of something to happen, but nothing ever did. During the year I was in Cranfield, I came to London many times for many different reasons, be it spending new year break with friends from Calcutta, attending MBA job fairs, job interviews, Crystal Palace to watch Usain Bolt in British Athletics Meet, many landmarks with day trips arranged from Cranfield. The more I visited London, more I discovered and each visit painted a different picture and London to me was an endless process of superimposing these pictures one by one to be able to fathom the true character of the city.
A new chapter started in 2010 when I started the new job that took me to all corners of London, and it was amazing to discover how old infrastructures are fitted with cutting edge technology to keep abreast of the 21st century. This is the true beauty of London, it keeps evolving, as if in a constant flux or plasma. More places were added to the areas I frequented, with work or after work hours on the way back, in search of comic book shops. Places on both banks of Thames around Houses of Parliament, china town, Shaftesbury avenue or Holborn — the map of inner circle of London was becoming quite clear, just like after long hours of toil, a jigsaw finally starts to show signs of the pattern one looks for, the picture one is trying to find. There were little discoveries made along the way, like the comic book shops on the great Russell street opposite British museum, an exquisite Indian restaurant in Shaftesbury avenue named Malabar, sudden realisation of a concert by my favourite Spanish group Amaral at a Scala theatre near St. Pancras, a Bengali bookshop near the BT Tower. All these findings marked experiencing something personal, that I discovered in the process of knowing the city.
However, it took a lot longer to have an appreciation of the size of London, the suburbs and their location in respect to the centre of the city, apart from the extremities of the south-east where I lived. The size of London, in a way, can be easily defined by the M25 motorway. Even if I’ve driven all around it on an endless number of occasions, it’s the radial roads that joined M25 at various junctions that held the key to knowing all precincts. It’s only later, when my confidence in driving in a busy city like London overcame the worries, that I started going to places using the car rather than take the same train to London bridge. It’s during those precise moments, around the end of last year, when a collage of pictures, structures, sounds and faces started to come all together to a complete landscape of London. Through my projects, I have a better appreciation than ever, of the geography of the city and the localities.
I often had a feeling about Calcutta that the city had many layers, with a degree of separation in between, just like particles inside an atom — each with its path but hardly any are changing their orbit. In one layer you have celebrities, politicians, business leaders, people who are face and ambassadors for the city and are often in the news. Then there are millionaires who we hardly know but can still marvel at their houses and posh cars. There are academicians and artisans, in their smaller spheres of specialisations. Then there are common people — ranging from high earner executives and directors to penniless beggars — with a plethora of strata in between. The curious fact is, to some extent we all come across these people every day, either directly or via media, but we have no appreciation of what the life is like for the people in the other strata, we can’t even imagine. The metaphor of an atom seems quite apt, with proton and neutrons forming the nucleus whilst the electrons keep running in their orbits completely unaware of the other orbits. After coming to London, that feeling was much bolstered. It’s a city where we can’t even think of identifying the number of layers — commuters from suburbia in their mundane attires day after day, construction workers from Eastern Bloc countries, Tamil eatery owner in Newham — these are all unique and one’s daily routine is diametrically opposite to the other’s, but the great city of London is the only commonality amongst all these strata.
So what makes London a great city? Will it be the marvels of British engineering that built all infrastructure that is essential even now for daily life? Or would that be the large conglomerates in modern-day London, especially at the plush reincarnated docklands at Canary Wharf, that made the city the financial capital of the world — the financial empire that was built with the wealth amassed from its dark colonial past? What about the numerous picturesque landmarks, a hallmark of fine Victorian architecture strewn across the city, which makes London one of the biggest city destinations for tourists all around the world? Undeniably all these are contributing factors that made this city evolve over decades and centuries to become one of the biggest metropolises in the world. However, above all, what I started this writing with, it’s the character that defines the city and what else can best depict the character of the city than its people themselves? From plagues in the Middle Ages to the terrorist attacks of 2005, the city rose to threats posed on its existence, regrouped and reinforced and mutated even stronger, like a Phoenix rising from the pyres. I did not witness or read a lot on any of the events I mentioned, but I was there during the riots of 2011, the Olympics in 2012, the student protests of 2009 and occupy movement in 2011 — and in all these occasions, London has risen to the challenge and shown its mettle, the strength of character, and its people, irrespective of their background, nationality, colour or religion were at the forefront at this.
London is multicultural, it is a confluence of perhaps the most number of cultures across the world into a harmonious coexistence. Starting from restaurants serving all possible cuisines across the globe, to a feeling of arcane at the public places with a mix of languages — recognisable and unknown — strikes the eardrums even without trying to listen — the symbiosis of altitude of cultures, languages, custom, attires is easily palpable. From the carnivals like Holi, Chinese New Year and Notting Hill to an artist playing along flutes and selling Bolivian folk tunes to a man walking in Haringey with an antelope horn — the contrast of sights and sounds only reinforces the fact that this city has welcomed all communities of the world with open arms, as it understood the value of widening its horizon, learning and flourishing from different cultures and communities — much to the dismay of the ‘Little Englanders’, who wants their little kingdom nation back, where the sun never set (it still doesn’t, worth checking an interesting article in XKCD). Irrespective of whether people came to work, study, travel, party, make a future or seeking asylum after all the roads to live in the country are ceased — London has something to offer to all, shelter, career, education, entertainment. All these cultures, ethos, values all add to the complex identity that defines today’s London where it’s not only a window to the UK but also a harmonious world of tomorrow. With exceptions that all cities have, London is a shining beacon of individual excellence and humanity.
I also wonder at the awe-inspiring speed the city is evolving. London is a vibrant city, with a multitude of activities happening every hour that reshape and reform the city beyond recognition, be it new skyscrapers or new look buses and trains, to new ways of commuting in bike highways and skyline or a new art form. All these changes, however insignificant, paves the future of the city of tomorrow, where it can offer something to the whole gamut of people who visit, work or live in the city. The changing face of London is also uplifting the areas or suburbs that it conveniently ignored or even exploited before. This brings in the question of the leadership. The man at the helm of spearheading the success of London is its charismatic mayor Boris Johnson. I do not support his political allegiance, but no better person could have led London in the twenty-first century. He is flippant, and at some point obnoxious because of his insensitivity, but he is avant-garde, a maverick who runs his show what London needed, away from a quintessential politician, it needed a crossover between a heretic and a businessman, and Boris wears both these hats with equal aplomb.
Despite all positive energy that London exudes, it has never ceased to be criticised, mainly by the rest of the people of the UK rather than people from other countries living in London. Rest of the UK feels the image of the UK is too London-centric and all the infrastructure investments are around London whereas other places would need more funding. And then there are NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) who would rather cherish all benefits of all such changes but is extremely reluctant to assist authorities in getting the change implemented. Then some moaners would pick fault without any reason, be it immigration, too many people, increasing crimes, too little personal interaction. Usually, none of them are any valid reasons — the benefits of multiculturalism have truly been reflected as the youth have more understanding and mental agility than anywhere in the country. The crime rate is high but that is unavoidable in any major city, for London, the figures were going down, promising a better future. London is a thriving, burgeoning city and it can’t be devoid of any problems, it’s just the question of how they deal with it, which reflects the strength of fibres of its character. Also, being constantly under focus blow minor things out of proportion that go unnoticed elsewhere in the country. In fact, during my early years in the UK, I disliked coming to work near London, I wasn’t very keen on going to central London at peak times. However, after a few years of living away from London and then going back there quite often made me in a way miss the hustle and bustle of a big city, see so many people at the same time, have a sense of haste and feel a part of this juggernaut that’s hurtling itself to the future with an amazing élan.
To summarise, London is not just its parks and Victorian architecture, nor is it the multi-million-pound houses at Mayfair/ Regent’s Park or the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, nor either the stark contrast of central London in the outskirts Acton, Haringey, Tottenham. It’s like a kid’s fantasy out of sweet shops, a pick and mix of the widest variety of sweets, but most likely to have at least one of each type. However, with all its grandeur London is still just another city, what makes it unique is its people — the visible and invisible ones, who make the city lovable, lovable and above all, add the personal touch to the feeling of people who are coming in London, making a fond place in their memories. London, to me, will remain as the sterling example of a place championing the differences in humanity and thriving from it, which, sans its exploitative capitalist background, will be a perfect unified world of tomorrow…