Saturday, 10 July 2010

East vs. West: The Cold War of London

Usually one of the first questions a Londoner will ask another Londoner upon meeting them is "So, where do you live?". This is not merely part of the standard "And what do you do?"-type polite conversation at which most Brits excel. If you are a Londoner you can tell all you need to know about where the conversation is going from the answer to that question. Where does this new person call home? The instant that you reply to such a query, the asker's brain begins computing. East? West? North? South? Well-connected transport-wise? Safe and middle-class or cool and slightly dodgy? Do you prioritise shopping facilities or boozing establishments? If they know the area even vaguely they will follow up with a series of street-specific queries to glean even more information about whether they are likely to have anything in common with you.
The London Postcode Map (by South London Maps)
When the Pet Shop Boys sang about East End boys and West End girls in the 1980s, the likelihood of the twain meeting was purely lyrical. But their classic hit about inner city struggles and class divides still rings vaguely true in London today. An urban Cold War splits East and West London, although money is beginning to blur the lines. The west of our city is a harbour for old money, ancient families, the middle and upper classes. The streets of Notting Hill, Hammersmith, Fulham, Shepherds Bush, Richmond, Barnes and Wandsworth are pounded by the wheels of sporty buggies and Ugg-booted feet. Post-university, students of Nottingham, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and many other ancient cities of learning, flock to this area of London to recreate their student house-shares; but in finer houses, with higher rents, and usually greater proximity to a Waitrose.

The East's development is newer. As illustrated by the characters of the popular soap opera "Eastenders", lower class London typically has held these trenches, but the new instant wealth of the City has begun to drag the area into modernity. Expensive penthouses, all steel and glass, mushroom up within old warehouses. Edgy fashion designers run studios off Brick Lane, and send their angular models down catwalks though disused industrial buildings. Whilst Brick Lane itself holds firm as the city's premier venue for Indian cuisine, restaurants of a more exclusive and expensive nature have begun to spring up among the curry houses, catering to the rich bankers with fat wallets who make their millions around Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street. The old docks and water-front markets are undergoing regeneration, no area more so than Stratford; a long way out east, and the site of the upcoming 2012 Olympics. Billions of pounds of investment promise to improve infrastructure in the area, once reliant on heavy industry. Its industrial, and hence now somewhat stagnant, economy has left East London less developed and more impoverished than West. Crime rates are higher here, and the area contains many scenes of turf war and gang clashes, often between horrifyingly young children, which hold back economic investment and further development of the area.

Similar divisions differentiate North and South London too. Whilst those in the south may deem themselves more civilised than those in the north, many North Londoners (stereotypically music, film and arty types, more bohemian, although often no less wealthy, than the bankers and lawyers in the south) regard southern London as boring. Proper south - "Sarf of the river" - is for many North Londoners a hell-hole of sink estates and all that is wrong with British society. The irony is that every area of London now has its shiny, plush Starbucks, and also its dodgy alleys with discarded rubbish it is best not to look at too closely. Where one lives and feels an affinity to is entirely personal. Every Londoner thinks their area is best, safest, cleanest, the most fun for a night out, has the greatest pubs and the most reasonable rents.

But I am about to cross the divide. Having lived in South-West London since I moved to the city almost three years ago, I am going north. Leaving the safety of upper middle-class Putney, and decidedly upper-class/who-cares-about-class-when-you're-this-rich Chelsea, I am moving to North London. I relinquish my SW postcode for a simple N. (I have also relinquished, no doubt to their owners' immense relief, numerous Accidental Family spare bedrooms, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I gain a shorter commute to work, lots of trees, the Regents Canal, Hampstead Heath, and most importantly a place of my own. Just nobody crush my dreams by mentioning the word 'mortgage'.

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  1. What a vivid view of London today.
    Enjoy the green!

  2. Glad it paints a picture! London is more like lots of small towns or villages than one big city really so every area is unique.

  3. I loved reading this. Much more realistic than any other guides out there. I'm planning on moving to London to study, and wanted a blunt and realistic view of the city. Thanks so much!! Definitely a new sub :)

    1. Thanks, Uggynog - glad you found it useful, and good to have you aboard!

  4. The recent London riots sent unerasable pictures intent on the globe. Huge fires, street violence, and looters hunt stores and carrying off everything from golf clubs to iPods to designer vesture. What started as a protest by Lower-class, in London changed into a scrap, with crowds pillaging high-end stores to steal sports equipment and shopper physical science.


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