A favourite mode of deviant relaxation, and relatively harmless means of indulging my on-line screen addiction, is watching scenes of London from times past. Not the flickering hand-tinted omnibuses, flower girls and street urchins of the Edwardian era, or the wailing sirens and underground shelters of the Blitz (though these too have their fascination), but people strolling down the street in the King’s Road, Carnaby Street, the Portobello Road in the 1960s – that is, within living memory.
The ‘swinging London’ fashions, hairstyles and street scenery all catch the eye. But the real fascination lies in the depiction of a nation in that never-to-be-recovered era prior to mass immigration. It’s not just, as the uncensored comments helpfully remark, that the people are nearly all white (i.e. Anglo-Saxon), but that they seem relaxed and happy, thoroughly at ease with themselves as they go about their business, which goes also for the sprinkling of Afro-Caribbean blacks.
The sense of loss breaks one’s heart. People are not eyeing each other suspiciously, wondering whether they can trust their neighbour, where the hell their neighbour comes from and what the hell they are doing here, or wondering what they are permitted to say or think without being accused of a hate crime. They can take it for granted that rich or poor, young or old, they share the same sense of identity and place, history and cultural experience – the same robust outlook and sense of humour. No harm intended, no offence taken.
There are no obvious signs that these English of yesteryear are suffering the effects of ‘a lack of diversity’ or ‘Eurocentrism’, the victims of some drab uniformity or cultural homogeneity – quite the contrary. No doubt class divisions were greater, but the bowler-hatted city gent, the cockney street trader and the young hipster rubbed along well enough. And, when push came to shove, they knew they were on the same side.
I remember from my childhood a book, circa 1962, entitled ‘London city of any dream’, a photographic portrait of London with text by Colin MacInnes. It was a London inhabited by people of widely differing classes and backgrounds – but they were all Londoners. It was their city, and its past was their past. Even though I came from the suburbs, it was also my city. As a teenager, I spent almost every weekend frequenting its galleries, museums, parks, churches, historic monuments, markets, boutiques – and later its pubs. I always felt at home.
No longer. The elite inhabitants of London’s clubs probably still feel at home, almost at ease with themselves, but they exist in a parallel world, untouched by the thronging masses that crowd the pavements below, or by the diversity quotas which are being imposed on the rest of society in order to deconstruct what remains of the old culture, and which they have not lifted a finger to oppose. Have a look in the foyer of the Athenaeum (no-one will ask any questions so long as you are dressed up) and see if you can spot a ‘BAME’ specimen among all those privileged establishment liberals. But how long do they imagine they can hold out?
How should one take the loss of one’s capital city? Some lines from H G Wells’ Tono-Bungay come to mind, describing the passage of a ship steaming down the Thames. They were quoted by Vaughan Williams to describe the epilogue of his wonderfully evocative London Symphony:
‘Out to the open we go, to windy freedom and trackless ways. Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down upon the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes, London passes, England passes …’