Metropolis

A Mecca of individualism, a mysterious labyrinth, a secret place of clubs, societies and cults: London is the most up-to-date and cosmopolitan city in the world. By Duncan Fallowell
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The Independent Culture
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, born and bred in Hampstead, currently lives in Clapham I love the view across the Thames from Vauxhall or Westminster Bridge, looking down towards the City and Canary Wharf. I like the contrast between St Paul's Cathedral - the old - and the bulk of Canary Wharf - the new; the sense that London is still growing but has kept its traditions

John Bird, editor, `The Big Issue'

When I was a kid, I slept rough, using London streets as a getaway both from my parents and the police. There weren't many people homeless on the street, but Ian Dury was the one person I remember as representing the spirit of a hopeful London night person - like most Londoners, he's obdurate and carries on. I think of Portobello Road. When I go to Portobello Road, I experience a 50-year leap: I lived there as a child when it was a Cockney London Irish ghetto. Now it's very cosmopolitan; it's grown and changed and become much more fun, but it's also a place where you see a lot of street-drinking and many more damaged people than before

You can go up the Empire State Building, look down on the circumference of Manhattan, and say: "Yes, I could have this town in my hand." You may walk all round Paris in a day and feel: "Yes, this town could be mine." But such feelings can never arise in London, a city it is hardly possible to grasp, let alone possess. London is always the great sea, a seething stew: formless, limitless, ever-changing, unknowable. I was born here, went to school here, and have lived half my life here; then yesterday someone said they lived in Lower Clapton. Where the hell...?

London is the first and archetypal city as blind giant: the anonymous and unappeasable maw. It is the most playful and eccentric mess, a phantasmagoria without visual or tribal cohesion.

Not for nothing is it the capital of the pragmatic English, who always eschew the big picture. The one chance for a rational plan - Wren's, after the Great Fire - never took off, and London has continued to burgeon as a random heaven and hell. It's a city of houses, and, because an Englishman's home is his castle, every house wants to be different and have a door directly onto the street. The result is bizarre conjunctions and chemical combinations - no uniformity at all. Nothing coherent lasts in London for long. The place is an aggregate of one-offs, and we scramble about as best we can.

London has no edge. It flows on and on, in every direction, and most of it is flat, so that it's rare to gain a perspective beyond the next twisted street. Culturally, socially and physically, it grows in and out of itself, and the suburbs, when you reach them, are not young.

Other cities are ringed with suburbs of modern residential towers: London suburbs have mediaeval hearts with Tudor and 17th-century skeletons, 16th-century muscle, 19th-century flesh, 20th-century plastic surgery. Outside the endlessly redeveloped core, in the late 19th-/ early 20th- century suburbia, the mysterious labyrinth exists in almost pure form: miles and miles of chimney-potted gables. This is the nearest London ever gets to purity of form, and for the uninitiated this is London at its most terrifying.

London doesn't have straight lines. Its space, like that of the universe, is curved; but, as with the universe, you can only be inside London. There is no way of standing outside it because it is not a place but a medium which only ever reveals parts of its parts. Even the ceremonial centre is assembled haphazardly.

And here is the magic - this labyrinth is not a prison. It constantly dissolves into fantasy and escape. All is surprise, fascination and diversion:

Tony Parsons, writer and presenter

The greatest thing about London is being able to live within walking distance of a bookshop, a Vietnamese restaurant and Highbury football ground, the home of football. When we've won a trophy, the council workers mowing Highbury fields wear little red and white hats, and I feel very much as though they are an integral part of my local community, reminding me of the old line about London being a collection of villages. To leave London is to admit that something inside you has died; the bright lights of London never grow any dimmer, it's only the people who grow duller

not too high-octane, rather dreamlike, in fact - and everywhere fretted with gardens, trees and more trees, a city half hidden by leaves.

Most of it is on a human scale: London doesn't go for canyon streets - it would quickly paralyse itself if it did. Such streets are only feasible in New York because they are dead straight and open to the sea at each end. Most historical cities maintain themselves; London re-designs itself every generation. There are non-stop alterations, disfigurement, charmification, smashing down, building up. There has been no major revolution Mary Quant, the designer, has commuted to her office-cum-shop in Draycott Avenue, Chelsea, for more than a decade

Chelsea Village is my patch. We bought our building here in the Sixties, and I've lived two minutes in one direction and three in the other. The Beatles once took refuge in my workroom because they were being mobbed when they were out shopping, and the Rolling Stones always used the fish restaurant nearby. Exciting new things are happening here, but they haven't taken away from the village feel; it just gets more chic. People still say good morning as they scuttle along, and there's everything you want - the Mary Quant Colour Shop (of course), Daphne's, the Conran Shop, the Japanese Take-Away and the old Michelin building which houses the Bibendum restaurant.

in English society for 1,000 years, and it is the same with London, which is in unceasing, minor Burkean revolution.

Actually, London in not very interested in politics - or in beauty - or in the present. It is interested in the past and the future, in class, sex and money. Does this sound cruel? But London is not a cruel city. Its greatest vice is indifference - it's hard to set the town alight. Another is indecision. Both vices result from an excess of variety and the necessity for tolerance.

Very typical of London, therefore, is the lunatic compromise. Let's take a physical example: the undisputed historical masterpiece of dockland architecture, Telford's St Katharine's Dock. A sizeable lobby wanted the site. The solution: half of it was demolished. But this demi-anarchy can produce accidental conjunctions of bizarre magnificence: the triumvirate of King's Cross, St Pancras and the British Library is townscape at its most original and extravagant.

The huge Docklands development, by encouraging a high-spirited architectural free- for-all, continues the great London tradition of unplanned individualism; its climax, the superb waterfront of Canary Wharf, has the cool, creamy elegance of Belgravia and Regent's Park.

London is also profligate, and repeatedly throws itself away. This is a measure of confidence, as well as of stupidity; and of necessity, too. Just when the city's inner and outer ornateness were becoming overwhelming to the point of constipation, modernism came along and gouged great, blank holes in it, providing relief from the compress of small-scale creative riot with huge, flat, empty surfaces, where the eye and the soul may recover and be reminded of nothing. A woodsman would call it coppicing. London and Londoners wage an unceasing battle against disintegration. Stepney, Poplar and Limehouse are fabulously atmospheric names, but they endure only on the map: as places, they have collapsed into the black hole of nowhere, with scarcely a pre-war building between them and with modern ones of dreadful monotony. They are unknowable because they do not exist. And who says size isn't important? You live in Hampstead, your best friend is in Dulwich? - forget it.

Yet unlike Paris (snobbery), Rome (carnival), New York (money), Moscow (look over your shoulder), or Tokyo (robotism), London imposes no particular lifestyle upon its inhabitants. It is the Mecca of individualism, a colossal do-it-yourself kit supplying all the components for assembling any life you wish. Though England has a control culture and is less free than some nations, in London, nothing is unavailable - only the methods of acquisition are controlled. This is our famous hypocrisy. But London's stability in this respect accounts for much of its success and its ever-growing cosmopolitanism.

London is now the most cosmopolitan city in the world by far. Nobody wants to go to New York any more, it's just geekville, but foreign communities are still arriving and setting up here. It was always so - England is the champion mongrel - but never more so than now. The British Empire has imploded to its hub. Folk from the European Union have free access; then there are the Middle Easterners, the New Russians, the South Americans... it's terrific. Foreigners are more at home in central London than Londoners are. As outsiders, the centre is simpler for them; it's not clogged with memory.

It all sits very uneasily together; only a certain reserve makes it possible at all. Therefore, London is a secret city - of clubs, societies, in-groups, street cults, telephone numbers. Privacy is a London fetish. There is not much piazza culture, but there's plenty of street activity, which involves hurrying past others to your destination, glancing

Daniel Poole, designer

It's the unique street theatre. If you sit outside the Cafe Boheme on Old Compton Street, one moment a multi-pierced and tattooed pop-star will walk past, followed by someone who asks you for money for a cup of tea telling you that "credit cards are accepted". I love watching the professional people-watchers who are flown in from New York specifically to spend two hours trend-spotting in Old Compton Street and dictating reports into voice recorders: "spotted: blue anoraks - major trend; nine people with nose rings, four with green hair; tattoos particularly strong."

everywhere rapidly. Londoners concentrate on their destinations as though these precious certainties might vanish if they didn't.

It is a bad city for lateral activities such as flirting, but a good city for highly focused activities, such as picking up. Since you drown in London if you don't know what you want, you fairly quickly decide what your key objectives are, always remembering that you are too polite to mention them. A social life has to be deliberately constructed and sustained: take your eye off it for a second and it vaporises. The whole town can sometimes seem like a hyper-anxious cruising joint, everyone simultaneously yearning and rejecting. In London, everyone hungers to be involved but nobody wants to get too involved because where will it end? And if all this nervous ambivalence gets too much, just relax - everyone but everyone passes through this town. Someone will come by just for you.

London itself has never been in a state of panic, which is astonishing - not during the Gordon Riots, not during the Blitz, not even during the unbuttoning of Swinging London, when the whole place levitated in a cloud of rainbow chiffon. But there are fears that panic may be just around the corner, so it throws cold water on certain activities. Because there's no red-light district, for example, you have to order over the telephone, which has the disadvantage that you cannot see what you are getting.

And pubs must close at 11pm, which has had the side-effect of giving London the most vigorous

Naim Attallah, publisher, has lived in London since 1949; he now lives in Mayfair

I adore Lina's grocery shop in Brewer Street, Soho. It's an Italian family business, and has been there for 30 or 40 years. I'm an early riser and Lina's is open early, so I drop in at eight o'clock in the morning on my way to work and buy bits and pieces. They have olives, wholemeal bread, brown rice, all the things I want - I'm a health freak. Cooking is my hobby - whenever I want to relax, I cook.

and imaginative nightclub scene in the world. Almost every pressure group in the city, including the police, wants to do away with the 11pm rule, but, paradoxically, the result is to hand the city over to the young after-hours, because London is ageist.

Ending 11pm closing would open up the city at night to a much wider age group.

This fear that the mighty stewpot could boil over any second - don't let it get to you. London is too big and too fragmented for mass behaviour of the revolutionary sort, and the streets are too narrow and bendy. Barricades? Where could you put them? People would just go round another way. It's impossible to have such big adventures in London. But, if all else fails, the city uses its secret weapon: naffification. London consumes fads, ideas, cultures at the highest speed. Take any of it too seriously, and you become naff.

The lurid excess and charm, the thudding collisions of it and the failure of collisions, too, makes a style of no style and every style. Even its squalor becomes stylised into a kind of desperate Dickensian cuteness: squat chic. But, unlike the Continentals, no one slavishly follows fashion in London. Instead, they make fashion. Everyone looks different. And everywhere else seems slightly old-fashioned after London. Even these brand-new triumphant cities of the Pacific Rim - Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Seattle. What a crashing bore they all are in their single-minded modernism.

In the future, any place or person that is only one thing will appear lifeless and dated. The next phase in evolution is multiple identity. What will this mean? London, supreme metropolis of an eclecticism which includes comfort but eludes prediction, is very tantalising on this question. Because the city is so old and new, so traditional and experimental, because it has sucked up the whole world but only half-digested it, because it doesn't know where it's going, because its intelligence is directed away from itself, because it is unknowable, London is the most up-to-date place there is.

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