NOV 6 — “The greatest city in the world” is a descriptor any city would covet. Who wouldn’t want to live in a dynamic, cosmopolitan, efficient and well planned megacity that is the envy of other cities, right?
Well, that one city would be London.
The London Olympics certainly boosted the image of the city. After what was considered a successful outing – another pearl in an assortment of pearls already in the oyster – the city remains as energetic and optimistic as ever despite the economic malaise that has struck most of Europe.
When one is in a new place, one would instantly make comparisons with one’s home. What are its drawbacks? What are its strengths? What can we learn from them, the natives?
One of the things that I noticed while I was in London is how people take the initiative to hold the door for you. Cars stop to give way to pedestrians. Shopkeepers would uniformly ask the rhetorical “You alright?”
London appears to be a model cosmopolitan city. Just walk down any street in the city and you can hear the chatter of different languages being spoken. There is a stigma on racism with laws being strictly invoked to punish those who express racist sentiments. Exotic food is highly prized which means that one need not miss one’s weekly fix of nasi lemak in London.
However, an unsettling xenophobia sits beside the cosmopolitanism. The UK Border Agency has concentrated on eradicating illegal immigration by using harsh measures such as questioning suspected illegal immigrants in Tube stations.
I’ll bet a pound that some white, middle class person who’s racing out of the Tube would be ignored by enforcement officials.
With every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And unbridled immigration in the past has seen the rise of reactionary movements like the English Defence League. Extreme right wing movements are rising everywhere and it’s interesting to see some Londoners sharing this misguided sentiment.
One thing that is particularly unsatisfactory about London is how it seeks to silence its colonial past. This is unlike in Berlin where there exists many memorials on Nazism and the evils that it embodied. The truth is bitter but only with an incisive discourse of its past can people prevent a repeat of the horrors that was manifested.
London which was the administrative capital of the old British Empire hardly houses any memorials that show contrition about its colonial past. There are memorials of fallen soldiers but any mention of massacres, resource pillaging or structural violence perpetrated in the Third World is absent and best left confined to the dustbin of history.
This city prides itself on educating the public. Museums such as the British Museum, V & A Museum, Natural History Museum and many more are cleverly arranged and extremely informative. One can get lost (and starve due to skipping lunch) just staring at the art and objects of inspiration.
The repository of knowledge in these institutions seems endless and more importantly, it is free. This is in contrast to museums in continental Europe where an entrance fee is levied, turning away the impoverished student who only wants to learn more about the country.
Public lectures? Philosophical debates? Book clubs? Speed dating? Silent speed dating? A festival with Jamaican flags everywhere? Want to worship the largest religion in the UK (football)? Want to worship the fourth largest religion in the UK (Jedi)?
There is always something to do in London. You’ll never be bored.
There is a tinge of leftism (which is rather nonexistent in the States) with the old left poignantly having a diminished presence at Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. I recommend taking a pilgrimage to Marx’s grave at Highgate Cemetery. Sadly, the leftist voice is being drowned out by religious zealots preaching deliverance by their respective Gods.
The London Underground is still the oldest underground commuter system in the world. I don’t think anyone can change that. Nevertheless, it constantly strives to improve itself and innovate – a strange feature of a publicly owned body. Upgrades happen every week in consonant with an expanding population and new carriages were recently introduced.
There is a difference when one is a tourist and when one resides in a new place. The tourist would have a checklist of things to see and do – recommended by others. The inhabitant would have the time and opportunity to stumble onto secret wonders by accident and more importantly, observe the nuances of city life.
Londoners are a reticent lot with a dash of mille-feuille. Life can be rather peaceful but lonely at the same time. While college parties are innumerable, they aren’t as crazy as the frat parties in the States that one sees on the telly – which could be an exaggeration.
The weather is still dour and is an object of fascination for Londoners – everyone seems to begin a conversation with the bloody weather.
But what I find interesting is the level of wit that Londoners display.
Any kerfuffle would be met with a remark that wouldn’t leave one in stitches but a blank smirk, reflecting the thoughtfulness of the speaker. This is a gem that hardly exists in Malaysia.
There is just enough chaos to make the city a lively place. While cities like Copenhagen and Oslo pride themselves on being one of the most liveable cities in the world, the absence of chaos makes them rather dull. Everything is too well planned, there are no traffic jams and these cities seem a little too homogenous.
While the London riots in 2011 seem to show that cracks exist within society, the crime rate has been kept under heel. CCTVs are so ubiquitous that a crime would be easily detected and prosecuted.
One has never felt safer.
There are endless lessons that one can learn from London. And I wouldn’t mind spending a sempiternal life in the greatest city in the world.
But London isn’t home. And it’s time to return home.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.