Tragedy that made us stronger: Londoners-by-choice inhabit a variety of villages

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The Independent Online
One morning last year an Italian woman was murdered just around the corner from where I live. Her killer, a Jamaican, I was told, then doused himself with petrol and, crossing the street, entered a grocery shop owned by a Pakistani family but, for some reason, being run at that time by a Spanish woman. There he set fire to himself. He died soon afterwards from his burns.

I was told of the murder and suicide by an East African Asian in the newsagent's shop on the corner when I went to buy a paper at mid-day. Everyone on the strip was very upset. The Vietnamese boat people who run the restaurant next door-but-one were talking at fearful speed to anyone who would listen, while the French girl who works across the road in the dry cleaners with the Sri Lankan and the two West Indians was glassy-eyed.

Some shopkeepers knew the victim, and were distressed for her: our Brazilian cleaner wondered sadly what kind of torment a man would have to be suffering to knife to death the object of his obsession before choosing such a terrible death.

This was our little corner of London and all of us, Londoners by adoption, were shocked. The peaceful, busy fabric of our village had been ripped apart by emotions and violence none of us could imagine. The sense of community in our polyglot community was never stronger.

I tell this story because it was this event that, tragic though the circumstances were, encapsulated for me what I understand to be the jigsaw essence of the London I know. To cartographers and bureaucrats and to all those who do not live here, London probably appears as some vast, uniform conurbation.

Indeed we enjoin the lie ourselves when, in filling in forms or if asked where we come from, we glibly answer 'London', as if a sense of that which is London was something common to all who live here. But, in many ways, the reverse is likely to be truer. Most of us know only the streets where we live, our routes to and from work and, like tourists, the internationally famous landmarks - Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the rest.

My London is as different from that of someone living in Stockwell as it is from residents of Stoke Newington, Islington or Golders Green. To be be honest I doubt if I have ventured east of St Paul's on more than five occasions in the entire past thirty years. I know the City is a vast employer of my fellow Londoners, but it might as well be in Copenhagen for the effect it has upon my life. I've never visited Canary Wharf, and I don't even know what City Road, where the Independent is based, looks like.

Since coming from Lancashire to university in London I have nearly always been west-based - and, though I've moved around a little, I don't suppose that as the crow flies I'm more than a mile from where I started off in my Bayswater bedsitter. The truth is I don't really know much of London at all outside my triangle, Fleet Street to the east, the river as far as Chelsea to the south, north to Shepherd's Bush and back along Westway to Euston. That's it. Beyond those perimeters, and off the road down to Wimbledon where we lived for a few years, there might as well be dragons.

Occasionally there are expeditions into the unknown, when Liverpool come to town and play down at Crystal Palace, or when we go north to Spurs or Arsenal.

But I'm still quite lost when I then get out of the Tube and find myself in unfamiliar streets. And not only lost. For someone from a west London village to join the crowd heading by the obstacle race of London Transport and British Rail towards White Hart Lane is a foreign experience. They have a different kind of cultural mix in N17.

Some people, of course, 'might not think that many of the people who make up the diversity of village London are Londoners at all, that they are, perhaps, some kind of international flotsam and jetsam, washed up, for instance, at a south Kensington crossroads but with stronger allegiances to other parts of the globe.

I would argue the exact reverse. To me, those who, out of all the world to choose from, have decided to make their homes and their careers in the various villages of London are the real Londoners, Londoners by choice rather than an accident of birth.

Because, almost like religious converts, they enjoy London, they appreciate London, taking nothing for granted, soaking up knowledge from this education centre of the world (name me another city with so many courses on offer from so many schools and colleges), soaking up the vast cultural complexion which village London offers.

Regularly we read news items of racial intolerance across London. Unhappily it does exist and it is appalling that it exists.

But let us not overestimate ethnic disharmony. Look around at village London, at the countless hundreds of little melting pots across the capital, at the over-riding sense of tolerance and respect which exists in our increasingly diverse communities, and think how lucky we are to live in one of them.

It is ironic but it took a sudden shared grieving, a display of community spirit occasioned by a tragic murder and suicide to make me fully realise this.

Ray Connolly's latest novel, Shadows on a Wall, is published today by Bantam Press, at pounds 9.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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