Does the whole world really want to be a Londoner?

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The Independent Online
'WHY DON'T we have lunch some time?' says one of your old London friends, when you have moved to the country. 'Give me a ring next time you have to come up.'

'But I never come up,' you say. 'Why should I come to London?'

Stunned and hurt silence. Understandable, really, because you are criticising their lifestyle. Hurt feelings. Dent in relationship. I know what it feels like - I lived in London for ages and ages and liked it and when people came up from the country, as my father used to come from North Wales, and said, I can't understand how you can possibly live in this foul place because I can't wait to get out - well, I felt misunderstood. Of course, we were talking at cross purposes because by London he meant Oxford Street and Leicester Square and dreadful places like that which only visitors go to, and I meant my little village, which was Notting Hill but even so . . .

One thing that has changed about London since I moved out in 1987 is that the people who live there don't defend it so vigorously as they used to. You can see why. In 1987 there weren't young beggars and people living in cardboard boxes, and there weren't bicycle couriers riding very fast along the pavements and over traffic islands - presumably because if they went on the roads they would be shaken to death by the pot-holes and proud-standing drains . . . But the fact is that people living in London - the very same people who say that we must do lunch some time - also tell me that the place is getting dirtier and more dangerous and more stressful and less fun. And on my last visit to London I found a new hazard to living in the capital: a big, glossy, giveaway brochure called London - Making the Best Better.

No author is credited, but the introduction is by John Gummer, who calls himself Secretary of State for the Environment (I wonder if he is any relation to the man who used to style himself John Selwyn Gummer and did so much as agriculture minister to make himself one of the most feared men in Britain, at least by farmers? If so, has he simply dropped one of his names in a new slim look? Or has he been advised by some style consultancy to chance his logo, rather as InterCity has suddenly become InterCity Shuffle? I mean, InterCity Shuttle?)

Anyway, John Gummer is plainly in favour of London. I think. It's hard to make out. For instance, he kicks off by saying: 'London is the world's choice of a city in which to live and do business.' He doesn't explain what this means. What it says is that most people in the world prefer living and working in London. This may be true. But in that case, who are all those people living and working in New York and Madrid and Rome and Paris? People who have been forced to live and work in their second- choice city, I suppose.

Here's another Gummer thought on London. 'Its sheer size and complexity makes it quite different from other British cities.' What do you make of that? That London is bigger and more complex than other places? Yes, yes, but what else? That's right] It also makes people such as Gummer so dizzy that they can't handle grammar any more, and forget that a plural subject should take a plural verb] 'Its sheer size and complexity make it quite different,' John. But I suspect that when you live in London all that rich air gets to your brain, and affects even your spelling, which is why on the next page you say: 'Throughout the publication London is defined as the area covered by the 32 London boroughs and the Corpoation of London.' Corpoation, eh? Must remember that one for Scrabble.

John Gummer, however, is not an arrogant man. He needs our help and says so. 'I am issuing an invitation to Londoners . . . and all who have London's interest at heart. Write to me on the enclosed form and let me know what makes you proud in London and what suggestions you have for improving our capital.'

Well, John, the only suggestion I have off the top of my head, being a pedant, is that the expression should probably be 'proud of London', but I'd like to tackle your questions by and by. The one I'm wrestling with at the moment is phrased as follows: 'Thinking about one of the things you like most about London, how could it be improved?'. I'm wondering how that unattached word 'thinking' got to the start of the sentence all by itself. I'm wondering why you ask us how to improve what we like best about London but not how to improve anything we dislike. And I'm wondering why you leave only four lines in which we can explain all our improvement plans.

I'll let you know, John. Or, I tell you what, why not give me a ring next time you're in the country and we can have lunch and talk about it?