I was thinking this morning about that famous Victorian news headline: ‘Fog in Channel: Continent Cut off’, and it occurred to me that whereas as a race we are not nearly so solipsistic or Anglo-centred as they were; Londoners still seem to remain utterly London-centric. If you ask any Londoner about places they know, they will tell you about the city almost as accurately as a cockney cabbie; they will also be quite clued up about the Home Counties as they may know people who’ve moved out there; and they will probably have more than a passing acquaintance with the South Coast as it’s less than half a day’s drive away. Most Londoners have also been to the West Country at some point: but there the charted territory ends. Like a Medieval map of the world, so is the North to a Londoner: full of white spaces with ‘Here Be Dragons’ written on it. Where is Northampton? they wonder, should you happen to mention the place. Is it near Yorkshire? And what about Wigan Pier – is that next to Blackpool? They just haven’t got a clue. Londoners are more familiar with France than they are with the North of England; they are utterly ignorant; and what’s more, they don’t care.
I can say all this with impunity because I am a Londoner. I know whereof I speak; I, too, was as ignorant as they, until I headed North in 1980 and mapped this uncharted territory for myself. I liked it. I found the people friendly – quite unimaginably so, for someone who never knew their neighbours and where speaking at bus stops brands you as a lunatic – and I found the communities self-contained. This has its disadvantages, of course: people can be parochial and gossippy and small-minded, but you get to know everyone. You can have a chat in the newsagents; you can go in the pub and find someone to talk to, and although the buses may not be great, at least you can have a chat while you’re waiting without somebody calling the police.
You couldn’t possibly pay me enough to live in London again, ever. I’m staying North of Watford.