The 4th of November 2002 is a special anniversary - I've been a Londoner for ten years.
Despite spending large amounts of time travelling and living in Paris - 'the big smoke' of London has been my home. I know it like the back of my hand, and have absorbed and come to love its ways, peoples and culture. And now is a good time to reflect on the changes to London that have occurred over the last ten years as it is a very special city.
As a small boy I was stunned by the grand buildings and towering cathedrals. I grew up east of London and we would drive through on our way to Wales. The memory is still fresh of driving past the Tower in the early morning when the fish market used to be down Lower Thames Street, and my father having to nudge his way through all the costermongers selling their wares. As I grew older I explored more - the first sight of Leicester Square at night, floating past Greenwich palace on a river cruise and being bowled over by the sheer profusions of nationalities. For a small lad from the provinces it was intoxicating. London to me, was the most wonderful place on earth.
You may not think so at first. It is not as classically European as say Vienna, Lisbon or Munich. And in size it dwarfs every other city on the continent including the real giants such as Paris, Berlin and Moscow. It belongs in the world's list of mega-cities such as Tokyo, New York, Sao Paulo, Cairo, Bombay, Beijing, Los Angeles and Mexico City. It has the grandeur of Paris, the energy of New York and the hipness of Barcelona. In many ways it is the ultimate city.
It has problems. Massive problems. But for city addicts there is no where else to live in the world - much to the annoyance of the British regions. It maybe is not as pristinely beautiful as a Florence or Venice. London has always been a working city. It didn't slide into genteel delipadation like the above only to be breathed back into life by the arrival of tourists (Bath is the British example of that) but has always been a working city. Steel from its factories were put together as ships in its docks which in turn were insured by its brokers. London has always been a city for making money. Its GDP has overtaken that of Russia.
It also is one of the world's most beautiful cities. The Victorian, Georgian and Regency builders created vast squares, white crescents, green parks, and exquistite mews'. All very lucky to survive the Blitz. And it is opening up. It is ostensibly a tangled city still hanging on to its medieval streetplan. This wasn't designed for the modern motor car and the congestion has to be some of the worst in Europe. Steps are being made to eradicate this problem by charging motorists to enter central London. A scheme which has worked in Edinburgh and Durham. But this will be the first big city to do so, once again London leads the way.
But it does have its problems - the cost of living is extortionate, begging, overcrowding and crumbling public transport. Crime is comparatively low for a city of its size and Paris, Rome and Madrid are far higher then it on any crime tables. The policemen still do not carry guns. Do you know how rare that is in a 21st century city?
For the tourist or traveller there are a wealth of experiences. It's not a backpacker city - you can't live here on a couple of dollars. It is a place to make money rather then exist on pennies. But there are a thousand things to see and do. Drinking with the locals in a market pub, following the alleys of the East End, looking at Harvards grave at Southwark Cathedral, ice-skating at Somerset House, riding in Rotten row, speedboating around Docklands, exploring Tudor palaces, bungy-jumping in Battersea, and hanging out with rock stars at the 'Groucho Club'.
But is it also very English?
Yes and No. It is a world city. If you looked hard enough you could find every nationality on earth here somewhere. There are Bangladeshis in Whitechapel, Turks in Manor House, South Africans in Wimbledon, West Indians in Brixton, Nigerians in Kidbrook, and Poles, Russians and Japanese in Acton. But it still clings to its English roots with life still revolving around the corner shop and pub. There you will find the true Londoner letting off steam about his city just has he has done for hundreds of years. There isn't the same intimacy in a French or Italian cafe (which are really for preening) as a London pub. The English relax in their pubs; it's as if someone has moved their sitting room out onto the high street.
And of course there is the infamous weather. Love us love our weather. Britain is at the end of the gulf stream which means it is never too hot or too cold but also has lots of rain. Don't worry; you soon get used to it. And after all what could be more English then rain? It's up there with snow in Russia and sandstorms in the Sahara.
For most travellers London is at the top of their itinery. It is one of the cities along with New York and Paris that you must see in your life, and it seldom disapoints. Americans in particular tend to get a lot out of London. So get yourself on a plane or boat and come over here.
And hopefully, in ten years time, I'll be writing about twenty years as a Londoner....