I was originally planning to begin this blog in the early 60s with Beatlemania and the British Invasion, but I think we need to go back a little further to do this thing right. So to start things off, here’s a song from Noël Coward, a debonair playwright and songwriter and wit who was a fixture in the public eye in London from 1920 through the 1960s. The story goes that Coward wrote “London Pride” while sitting in Paddington Station one day during the Blitz in 1941, watching resilient Londoners going about their business as they walked through the bomb-damaged station and thinking of the little flower called “London Pride” that was blooming throughout the city amidst the wreckage.
There’s a lot we could talk about here, but for now, let’s focus on one thing. I think it’s worth noticing that the song champions “London” Pride — not “English” Pride or “British” Pride — even though it was the whole nation, not just this one city, that was at war with Germany. And this London-centric attitude is telling: in a great many cases, you’ll find that Londoners tend to think of themselves as Londoners first, and only secondarily as English or British. (You may have seen something similar with New Yorkers, but I think it’s even more emphatic here.)
Perhaps London Pride is understandable: for nearly a thousand years, London has been unrivaled in England for its economic, political, and cultural power. To put this in perspective, you might want to try imagining that New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles were all the same city, with the financial hub, the centre of government, and the media and entertainment industry of a nation all piled on top of one another. Because of this, it should probably come as no surprise that London might be just a wee bit self-centred; and it should come as no surprise that the rest of Britain sometimes resents this self-centredness; and it should come as no surprise that Londoners don’t often notice, or give a damn, what the rest of Britain thinks. All of the clocks in the world, after all, are set according to Greenwich Mean Time.
While you’re here in London, reading newspapers and listening to the radio and talking to people, it might be worth reminding yourselves periodically that London isn’t the whole of England, just as England isn’t the whole of Britain, and Britain isn’t the whole of the United Kingdom. There are layers of political and cultural identity to sift through here, and you can learn a lot by paying attention to the differences and tensions between these layers.