Calling at all stations…

I am not a Londoner, although I did live there for two years during my university days. I’ve always been quite sad that I could never consider myself a Londoner properly. I mean, I had an Oyster card, I voted in the 2008 mayoral election, I’m rude to practically everyone I meet – everything. However, despite not being a Londoner, I have been having a love affair with the city for practically all of my life. I’m not well travelled but I don’t need to be to know that London is the greatest city on the planet – for me, at least. Two thousand years of history smashed together. The fact that you can see the Shard (built 2012) and the Tower of London (built 1078) at the same time is all it needs for one to understand that this is no ordinary city.

But what is a city without its people? In this book, Canadian Craig Taylor – now a Londoner himself – interviews a whole collection of people who live, work or play in the city, throwing new light onto the place. The people come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. Some of them were born there, some parachuted in for work, or love, and some arrived in the back of a lorry seeking streets paved with gold.

Londoners (subtitle: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It) really is magical in that it opens your eyes to the myriad of people who live in London and call it home. This is not a travel guide – parts of this are going to do anything but entice you to the city – but it is merely the stories of the people who allow the city to be what it is, and each one of them is fascinating, taking a new angle and allowing you to see a different part of the city, maybe even one who hadn’t even considered.

There’s everything in here. There’s the American tourist who talks of the immense history and the museums loaded with treasures. There’s the angler who discusses the fish population in the Thames. There’s the policeman who’s had a gun pulled on him, and the student who once got stopped and searched twice in one day as a terrorist suspect. There’s a woman who forages in skips and a hedge fund manager with an office in Berkeley Square.

There’s an artist who collected hair from underground stations, a commuter who talks about the angst involved in train travel, the traders in Spitalfields market, a singer who is haunted by the Tate Modern and a gay man who cruises public toilets for sex. London is a beautiful tapestry of individuals and this book merely scratches the surface, each story focussing on a different aspect of the place, from Canary Wharf to the Tube (one particularly interesting interview is with the woman who did the announcements for the Underground.)

Before this book, I didn’t know that fish has been sold at Billingsgate since the Roman days or that there is a surprising number of beehives on flat roofs across the city. The people have their quirks, but I don’t think there’s one here I wouldn’t like to hear more from. You cannot get a comprehensive version of the city from this book however, as everyone has their own view, some good, some bad.

But, when all is said and done, the book gives you the distinct impression that people think that London is a smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. But it is their smelly, dirty, overcrowded, unfriendly shithole. They wouldn’t change it for the world.

And neither would I.