Notes From The London Bubble: A British Taboo

Christopher Fowler
Look at the picture - is it in central London, or Wales? Here in the Decaf-Soy-Flat-White hell of London N1, home of the 'liberal intelligencia', people love to help their fellow neighbours. When we run out of raclette and have no alpine-based dairy product to substitute just before a wine and cheese party, someone will always pop over with an emergency cheeseboard. We're in and out of each other's flats with fresh truffles and pecorino all day long. This is clearly how some people think Londoners live. Try asking our nearest shopkeeper where the liberal intelligencia are and he'll say a rude word. I've just read a thick-ear crime novel in which a gruff Northern cop, clearly an avatar for the author, only has to sight someone with a beard to start sounding off against 'arty-farty' London liberals.
We've become more of a stereotype than the flat-cap-wearing whippet-on-a-lead Northerner.
And like all stereotypes, it's hopelessly wrong. I don't write much about the rest of Britain only because I don't have the depth of knowledge to do so when there are a great many terrific writers can. But I regularly make trips out (ie to towns with bookshops) there are always areas which are no different to my neighbourhood - just more segregated. The low-income families live separate lives from the higher earners. Smart little shops, dinky restaurants with fancy ingredients and artisanal markets are everywhere on one side of town, but the gap between craft-bread and breadline has grown so wide that one side cannot see the other. If I wanted to see real wealth, grand mansions hidden from the road, I wouldn't look in London but in the rest of the country (not Portsmouth, of course). I would argue that in London we see both all the time, because unless you live in Chelsea, Hampstead, Kensington or Belgravia (areas in which people don't live, just invest) the city rubs rich and poor together and drops them into the same street. Around me, the cockney geezers who run the 'Achilles Heels' cobblers and the imaginatively sweary barmaid in the Thornhill Arms cater equally to local workmen, hipsters, executives and the Muslim ladies who silently sit in the sunlight with their prams. I get the backgrounds for my novels by walking around and talking to neighbours where the arguments are the same as in the country; who illegally dumped rubbish on the street, when will the roads be repaired, what happened to the cycle lane. I was born in central London. My furthest relative lived all the way out in Earl's Court. When we visited him (all of 6 stops from Piccadilly Circus) we usually left early to get home for supper. That was our big day out. We didn't have a car. So of course Londoners knew each other; we saw each other every bloody day. I love Cambridge and Leeds, Norwich and Cardiff, Sheffield, Scarborough and even Walton-on-the-Naze (drawing the line at Portsmouth) but apart from finding people with more time to be friendly they really aren't so very different, and they grow less different with each passing day. In Spain the Catalans hate the Basques or Galicians depending on the year. In the UK we don't - but Londoners bear the brunt of the vitriol from everyone else, even if it's only online.
This is a British taboo; admitting that at ground level we're a united country separated by salaries. If anyone really thinks Londoners swan about from café to cocktail bar, come and compete for a job here; the process is truly horrendous, the chances of finding somewhere to live within financial and geographical reach almost non-existent. Then remember we're one country with the same aims. After the Brexit debacle it might be the thing that saves us. The coffee shop is in Wales.


brooke (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 14:35

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Daxxn.. I would have sworn it was either Queen Village (south Phil) or Ole City (north Phil).

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 14:47

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Spot on about the apartheid all over the country - and indeed the UK. In my area of the Midlands gated enclaves are springing up, and in my nearest mini-city Lichfield the poor live in one wedge to the NE, while all around developments spring up for the retired and those who can afford 4/5 bed luxury houses - all Tory voters, of course. Affordable housing? Ho, bloody ho.

Peter Dixon (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 15:58

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What you have in London is lots of money and lots of jobs. Lots of Decision Makers and lots of government money keeping it all moving. I have to travel 10 Metro stops to find a bookshop or an art gallery. The sheer abundance of London is what pisses us off when its still bloody grim up north. I co-edited and ran a regional arts magazine for 10 years and it closed because every venue we dealt with had their budgets cut or removed entirely. Apart from a few prestige arts venues that are viewed as too big to fail the cultural landscape is all hard times in a bleak house.
London has opportunities, the regions have almost none.

Despite that, Wales is too far to go for a cup of coffee.

Peter Tromans (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 17:04

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With John and Peter ten times. I live close to Oxford so don't get me started on Labour and Tory town planning; take your pick: incompetence or corruption? As for the West Midlands where I grew up, there's no investment and no money. We replaced factories with shopping centres. All very clean and civilised, but where's the wealth generation for an area that succeeded for decades by creating wealth by manufacturing it? That's as opposed to picking up other people's money. Wandered off the subject of class. For that, everywhere in the UK, the great divisions are decided by money, accent, appearance and who your father knows.

Brian Evans (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 18:17

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I lived in London (South) for years and Kings Cross for two. We moved to Merseyside 20 years ago, back to near from where I came. We still have the flat in KingsX and my partner goes there for a week once a month. I never do. I can't stand it anymore. Up here, people talk to you in the street and at bus stops. And we know all our neighbours. Whilst class still screws up this country, it is not just that. No-one, across the class system is very friendly in the South, esp London. They are just too far up their own backsides. Also, as a nation, we are not just racist but far too insular. EG, Most people, including me, who contribute to Chris's blog do it from a UK point of view, and we are too Londoncentric and UK centric and assume everyone knows which part of Britain we are alluding too.

Another point, we had a plumber come round last Monday, after he had done a days work. He charged us a mere £40.

There is worse than London though. Hastings! I lived there for 6 years, the most unfriendliest place I have ever lived in. If God had wanted to give Britain an enema, he would have stuck it up Hastings.

I thang yew, and TTFN

Peter Tromans (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 19:23

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There's an inverse relationship between population density and friendliness, at least at a superficial level. You notice it between people from the northeast and southwest of the United States. Enter an elevator in Texas and you receive a greeting from people you've never met (though you shouldn't wander onto their property at night).

Richard (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 22:34

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Weirdly, I try to avoid mentioning I'm a Londoner where we live now. It's gone badly in the past. Unless if I feel like there's some advantage to admitting I'm from SOUTH London, which people outside London seem to think is an urban warzone. This can circumvent quite a lot of male posturing, despite being cobblers. It's true of Croydon though.
What happened in Porstmouth?

Brian Evans (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 22:44

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Yes, What happened in Portsmouth?

Debra Matheney (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 22:49

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I find London overwhelming when I visit now: in the 1970's it was easy to manage. Same with Los Angeles and San Francisco. Too many people. But when I visit smaller places like Bath or Wells or Bury St. Edmund's, life is less hectic and people less hassled. My husband and I visit the central coast of California frequently. Much easier traveling there.

Homelessness is a huge problem in California and affordable housing hard to come by in most of the state. Then economic divide widens and widens. I HATE gated communities. Sorry they are springing up in Britain.

Martin Tolley (not verified) Wed, 12/02/2020 - 23:12

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They have coffee in Wales? Who let that happen then?

Helen Martin (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 02:02

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Aside from rainy weather, Portsmouth was fine - friendly people, good beer. What happened for you?

Christopher Fowler Thu, 13/02/2020 - 07:20

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Let's not talk about Portsmouth - the town where some mothers trained their babies to fight so that 'they would not grow up to be poofs' - let's forget Portsmouth ever happened, OK?

Allan Lloyd (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 08:57

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I live in rural Herefordshire and many of the small towns here are dying on their feet, while others like Hay-on-Wye, Ludlow and Abergavenny have found their target markets (books, food and food) and are thriving. There is still a massive division between rich and poor, and there is an increasing drug problem in Hereford. Strangely the one expansion area in town is in men's barber shops. There are rumours that these two factors are connected but what do I know about money laundering!

However, I've just returned from a London visit with my daughters in South London. The small "towns" like Crystal Palace, Sydenham, and Forest Hill do seem to be doing very well. They remind me of the small towns where I grew up. Each actually has an ironmonger and plumbers and builders exist side by side with the trendy coffee bars and artisan bakeries. They all have fishmongers. We have none in Hereford or Leominster, both sizeable country towns.

The main thing that I have noticed is how friendly people are in these places. There seem to be many good old "Souf London" boys who will stop for a chat when you are in shops. This rarely happens in Herefordshire, where there is an atmosphere of depression and poverty. I wouldn't move to London but I can see the attraction of the outer areas.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 10:37

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Allan, Last year I re-visited Hay and I felt the parade had passed by. Some of the book shops have now closed and were empty.

I lived in Sydenham for 16 years. I went there in 1971. It is now more of a vibrant place with yet more sodding chain coffee shops, but most of the small shops have gone. In 1971, every sort of local shop was there, and nice old fashioned cafes, each with their own individuality. There were 3 or 4 small private electrical shops which also sold white goods, a record shop, a terrific bakery, either a pub or a bank on every corner, a department store, Woolworth's and, would you believe, a proper laundry that sent your washing away to be washed and ironed. There were plenty more, that's just the tip of the iceberg. The one downside was the Granada Picture House had closed a couple of weeks before I arrived. It was also safe to cross the road without having to wait 5 minutes.

I made a lot of friends there due to the Amdram interest I had. A lot of sadly died over the years , but I am still in touch with most of the others. What I did find, coming from Liverpool, was a remoteness of people in the street and neighbours which I found a bit disenchanting. You had to make more of an effort.

However, my partner (from Wimbledon) may have a point when he says that people in the north aren't really any friendlier, it's just that they talk more.

Allan Lloyd (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 12:37

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Hay does change over the years and some shops have closed, but three new ones have opened in the last year, so they keep the customers coming. I do think Hay Festival has lost much of the status that it had when it was a true literary festival. Far too many talks by television personalities and politicians with books to sell, and hardly any by writers of fiction. I wish Mr Fowler could attend. but it is a bit far out in the wilds for him.

I like your comment about people in the north just talking more. That could apply to people in the country as well. They tend to chat so that they can gossip about you when they meet other people.

John Griffin (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 13:18

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interesting and revealing comments. I live 4 miles outside Lichfield in a conglomeration of former mining villages collectively known as Burntwood. Burntwood is part of Tory Lichfield constituency with the odious and useless Michael Fabricant as MP. Burntwood has 26k population, Lichfield 31k. Total investment outside statutory money from District Council in previous 3 years - £1,340 - yes one thousand.....and none so far this year because the Town Council went Labour, and the Tory District spent £15million on knocking down viable businesses in Lichfield and leaving the area as rubble.
That is why places are dying, wilful lack of investment, whether in industry, housing or infrastructure.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 13:24

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Allan, I think your last paragraph is true.

I see what you mean about Hay as well. The first time I went it was fantastic and vibrant. It wasn't a Festival day, just an ordinary day. But after some years break when I next went. it felt a bit of an anti-climax.

I have friends that live in Herefordshire in Brockhampton Park, near Bringsty. One came from Crystal Palace, and the other from Caterham. They moved over 30 years ago initially to Bishop's Frome. They love it, and the people. They have noticed a huge decline in "local" shops in Ledbury and Bromyard over the time they have lived there.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 16:05

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Sorry to mention Portsmouth again, but I used to go there regularly in the 1980s because my parents lived there. The thing I noticed most, and which I suspect relates both to urban poverty and being a naval town, were the huge numbers of second hand furniture shops, charity shops, bric a brac shops (they didn't even try to call them antique shops, unlike here in Leeds), and general pound shops and cheap clothing outlets. I have never encountered that amount of indicators of poverty in large cities. The naval reference by the way is related to sailors and their families moving frequently due to changing ship postings.
The huge divide between the haves and the have-nots is fully noticeable in Leeds and Bradford.

Brian Evans (not verified) Thu, 13/02/2020 - 18:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Liz-if admin doesn't censor the word Portsmouth-I found it a bit funny. As in peculiar and not ha-ha. It is joined by Southsea, and it is difficult to see where the join is, esp in the suburbs. They seem to be merged into one, but the Seaside bit of Southsea is more attractive then the main bit of Portsmouth.

Also, apart from the Theatre Royal which is the centre and near the very conveniently placed railway station, the main entertainment area, when there were cinemas, is not in the centre but a bit out of the way in a northerly placed inner city suburb.

I cannot think of Portsmouth without thinking of the wonderful old radio programme-"The Navy Lark" made from the late 50's until the early 70's. It still makes me laugh out loud now, so to me, it hasn't dated. So does "Life with the Lyons"

John Howard (not verified) Fri, 14/02/2020 - 08:57

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I understand and sympathise about the issues with Portsmouth and find that attitude loathsome. But I am allowed to as I was born there.
I suppose I am lucky that I didn't do much growing up there as I moved about the world a lot as a kid and when we did go back we lived in Drayton. It's a shame that it became that sort of area as I have very fond memories of it from 50 odd years back when I visited my grandparents every week and went to school there.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 08:21

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So, not a lot of chance of B&M ever visiting Pompey, then. And Brian - 'The Navy Lark' is like 'Dad's Army' - ancient, but ageless. To me, it's Sunday lunchtime, and my parents laughing at it - we would have the radio on as we ate, but never the television - and I could never see what they were laughing at, as a child, but I was amused by the plethora of silly voices, provided by Jon Pertwee, and Ronnie Barker. 'Naval Intelligence' was my favourite - Ronnie Barker doing one of his best 'Thicko' voices, easy to mimic. And, of course, the famous navigational instruction, inevitably followed by sounds of crashing and property destruction:
"Left hand down a bit..."

Liz Thompson (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 13:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes Ian, I too remember the wonderful Navy Lark and its navigational instructions! The Southsea/Portsmouth connection, and it is indeed a physical connection, is interesting too. One is the 'jolly holiday' with day trippers too, the other is naval, poor, and a lot of it run down. Bear in mind, I'm harking back to the 80s here, I haven't been there since my parents moved north in the 90s. There did seem to be a lot of neighbourly feeling in the little streets of Portsmouth, along with the second hand furniture. Oh, and some of the most elaborate and garish Christmas decorations in house windows that I have ever seen! And a concrete shopping centre to rival Billingham's, and if you have never been there, don't go out of your way!

Brian Evans (not verified) Sat, 15/02/2020 - 15:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks Ian, ancient but ageless. You could be talking about me.

The former docks are now a very pleasant naval "heritage experience" Go on, admin, give it another go.

What about "Round the Horne" My parents and me laughing out loud at the very explicit camp gay polari jokes without having a clue what we were laughing at. "Ooo, 'ello Mr 'orne, I'm Julian and this is my friend Sandy. How bona to varda yer dolly ole eke again." The downside was we had to listen to "The Billy Cotton Band Show" to get there. Oh, how that man irritated me. For child, he sounded so dated. But there was worse- Alan Breeze.

I'll finish on a quick "Can You Here Me, Mother?" And I'll throw in for free a "Aye, Aye, That's yer Lot"

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 16/02/2020 - 00:17

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My father would lunge wildly at the radio at Billy Cotton's always unwelcome:
"Wakey Waaaakheee!" If he was quick enough, dad would cut him off at "Wa..." I wasn't very old when 'Round The Horne' was first broadcast - it has since, in re-runs, made me cry with laughter many times - but, as I've mentioned before, dad's speech was peppered with odds and sods of other languages, and odd phrases, some of which were Polari:
"Can't go to school with a grubby eek, boy"; "Have you seen your mum's zjooje bag?"
"Look at them, trolling about there."
I know he had many, many friends in London - a lot of whom were Jewish, as he picked up a lot of words from them, possibly because a lot of Yiddish words described things that English didn't, exactly, and I know he liked the sound of them. I was often offered a boot up the toches, and if, when I was older, came home with some new clothes he liked, they would be pronounced as 'A nice bit of schmutter'. Whatever, I'm sure that the Polari came from Messrs. Julian and Sandy.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 16/02/2020 - 00:21

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One more old time steam wireless mention: for no discernable reason, the absolutely superb 1979 album, 'Machine Gun Etiquette' by The Damned, begins with Wilfred Pickles saying:
"Ladies and Gentlemen. How do.''

Brian Evans (not verified) Sun, 16/02/2020 - 15:20

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"What's on the Table, Mabel? You prob know that Violet Carson AKA Ena Sharples in Coronation St, played the piano on "Have a Go"

There is a park bench in Southport with one of those small remembrance plaques, outside the former Grand Cinema,- "To remember Wilfred and Mable Pickles. They Loved This Town "

From all accounts both Billy Cotton and Wilfred Pickles were not people you would want to be stuck in the same room with.

Laylow FM &#82… (not verified) Mon, 17/02/2020 - 09:35

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[…] On how London and the rest of the country is all starting to look the same. […]

Robin SINCLAIR (not verified) Tue, 18/02/2020 - 17:15

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Whilst the divisionary power of money is clearly apparent (besides othersfairly ridgid factors like religion, languages, gender, ethnic cultural origins), what is not clear is the causes and drivers of such wealth accumulation (some is often semi immutable heriditary factors)
This surely is an interest matter Odf discussion

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 19/02/2020 - 02:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Brian, Hastings is still trying to get over the war, it's been a battle for them.

Portsmouth - the tax every so often do a campaign with certain sections of the self employed, teachers and plumbers etc. a good number of years back, in Portsmouth they did the prostitutes for non payment of tax.

Foo Foo Lammar and Boy George both boxed so it shows how lame brained some people are.

In Bury the posh side say Bury as in sherry, the poor side the u as in but, or burrow.

Manchester is a bit odd, parts the rich and poor rub shoulders especially near the city centre (especially with the new and expensive warehouse conversions and some expensive high rises, but in other places the divide can be quite marked. In Stretford, terrace rows are just a cock stride away from the big houses; Sale just down the road has the racecourse estate and was a marked change from the nearest part of Sale although other parts of sale have terrace rows, and as you move toward the river Irwell certain areas are better of than others. North Manchester tended to be poorer but then Hulme & Mosside are on the south, with new building in the North side of the city the boundaries between the have and have-nots have blurred. At the moment we are seeing the city grow again as people move back from the suburbs & towns, big change from the 80's when it went the other way.


Helen Martin (not verified) Wed, 19/02/2020 - 17:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Pronunciation is odd. I look at Wayne's examples and shake my head. Do they really say Bury with a long A sound like faint since that's how we tend to say sherry. On the other hand "but" and "burrow" don't have the same U sound. But, hut, and cut are the short U sound but "burrow" is more in line with "hurry" or "worry". I'm no linguist but this is weird. I would say burry for the town but "berry" for digging a grave.

Ian Luck (not verified) Sun, 23/02/2020 - 08:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

An old mate of mine came from Blackburn, in Lancashire, and I loved how he pronounced it. I, not being a native, would say it as:
He would pronounce it as:
I must admit, that sounds a lot nicer to my ear.