Few urban centres can claim to be as pluralistic and lacking in any national identity as London. Being part of London is a life-challenge for the many travellers who pass through, hoping to call it home. They endure, in many cases, three-to-a bed cramped rooms at Waterloo, poor salaries; it is a shared struggle with other kindred souls.
The poster above articulates this sense of a shared struggle perfectly; on Facebook recently, a friend declared himself to be 10% Londoner, after having lived there for only one year – ten years being his transition period, apparently. And as has been observed elsewhere on this blog, the lack of a shared common spirit in the public sphere in Singapore contrasts markedly with London, where people feel and express a common hardship, and even celebrate it in art: graffiti, posters, stickers on lamp-posts, and otherwise.
And what of the rural / hinterland / heartland areas? Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north of England – all these areas demonstrate the polarisation between the magnetic power of the urban centre and the hinterland: what goes down as alternative in London might well get you attacked in Glasgow.
In ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’, Maggie Smith is the initially parochial but ultimately liberated, business-savvy Muriel. Her memorable outbursts of unfounded racism (‘Indians travel in packs so they can rob you’) shock, as much as her demands to be seen by a white, English doctor as she lies on her NHS trolley; on the other hand, her attachment to her chocolate biscuits and Branston pickle reinforce her value system, humanising her with a strong sense of compassion. Women of that generation, indeed people of any generation, simply reflect the values they had as children and young adults. For Muriel’s generation, born just after the war, foreign-ness is a strange and intimidating threat, equivalent in power, ironically, to the perceived threat of illiberal racism today.
My own dear grandmother’s words years ago when I was 18 describing the Jamaican doctor treating her in the nearest village practice, in the backdrop of an already conflict-fractured Northern Ireland have never left me: a ‘darky doctor’, she called him; not a bad doctor he was (considering his race, presumably), she conceded. (Repeating this remark to my new, clever student friends at St Andrews would have made us both figures of ridicule.)
Yet, she was no more or less a product of her values as the liberal Wikipedia generation is of theirs. And even today, practically every country struggles with its own version of the ‘darky doctor’. Foreign workers, guest workers, foreign talents in Singapore, bloody foreigners, Indians, Chinese, Asian, French, Polish: the category expands itself indefinitely with various labels. They compete for space, resources, jobs, and they become visible. Ironically, traditions and routines which, without the arrival of a foreign presence, might never otherwise have been celebrated or even noticed, (‘curry incident’ anyone?) have become rallying points for one-ness in the face of imagined invasion.
But identity is constantly up for renewal. Benedict Anderson wrote in 1983 in ‘Imagined Communities’ that while gender, sexuality and practically every other aspect of human identity is increasingly up for renewal and negotiation, the only static thing that everyone has, and absolutely must have, is Nationality. In this liberating, enlightened system of free-flowing information, Nationality remains the last way available to us to create difference, the last remaining characteristic that we do not usually alter in order to express our identity.
Except, perhaps, in London: the concept of the ‘Londoner’ conflates nationality and origin into one gigantic, pluralistic blur of colour, ethnicity, gender, language and sexuality: being a ‘Londoner’ is not so much a demographic, as a state of mind, and the street corner and the internet are the channels across which this dynamic identity is being negotiated.
When the individual slips the surly bonds of an appointed, sanctioned national identity, many desirable side-effects emerge organically: a strong urge for (and tolerance of) self-expression, a greater sense of shared struggle and empathy between citizens of the urban centre, a generally high level of tolerance for difference and a decided lack of racism.