A workman spends his lunch hour looking at paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery, 1933. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: my London is blue plaques, plague pits and gin not 4x4s and basement gyms

London is both in my blood and not. I am of the place, and not of it, and I feel or imagine sentimental connections at every twist and turn.

I love London – and yet in truth, as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for me to justify my love. Its current image in the media couldn’t be worse, and my friends in the north are fond of reminding me that it is simply the playground of Boris Johnson and the Candy brothers: a vast, ugly housing bubble populated only by the mega-rich, who don’t even populate it, as they live elsewhere. There is much truth in this. As you walk the streets nowadays you can virtually hear house prices going up and up, like a ticking taxi meter, all around you, but that is no source of delight to those of us who love the city.

My ancestors have been here since the 1850s. My maternal great-great-great-grandfather Job Bush moved from the village of Carleton Rode in Norfolk to St Pancras, bringing something of the country with him and working as a gardener. On Dad’s side, my great-great-grandfather William Julius Thorn was in Chelsea in the 1870s, working as a commercial clerk. In the 1950s, my parents moved out to the suburbs, fleeing the bomb sites and the cramped conditions they’d grown up with, but I moved back as soon as I could in the 1980s. And so London is both in my blood and not. I am of the place, and not of it, and I feel or imagine sentimental connections at every twist and turn. I can point out to you churches where ancestors of mine were wed, streets where they were born.

Hampstead, where I live, is no longer the cosy home of shabby intelligentsia; like anywhere else that’s pretty, its value has been entirely monetised and it is now just cash that lives here. But still, an area can’t shake off its past that easily, and when I walk up and down its hills I try not to notice the 4x4s or the hoardings where another basement gym is being constructed, but instead focus on the blue plaques to Katherine Mansfield and George Orwell, and the statue of Freud, looking severe and pensive at the foot of Fitzjohn’s Avenue. “Is he cross?” my youngest asked when he was five or so. “No, he’s thinking,” I replied.

It was love of London that sent me off on a walking tour of Aldgate last weekend, organised by a company called Footprints of London. The tour guide is Ade Clarke, who I was in a band with aged 17. He loves London as much as I do, which confirms my belief that growing up just outside it predisposes you to overlook its faults and dwell on its beauty and allure.

So if you love the place, you will find beauty in, for instance, contemplation of the spot where a plague pit was dug behind the church of St Botolph without Aldgate. The small group of us on the tour stood there on a Saturday afternoon, as the traffic roared by, lost in the past, surrounded by ghosts, suffused with the feeling that everyone who has ever lived in this city is somehow still here.

That feeling remained, grew stronger even, as we moved on to Wilton’s Music Hall, dating from the 1850s (did any of my ancestors go there, I wondered) and Cable Street, where we swelled with undeserved pride, basking in the memory of the local people who stopped fascists in their tracks. Then, in Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bangladeshi clothing worker who was murdered in 1978 on his way home from work, our spirits fell a little; maybe the fascists weren’t stopped after all?

Outside the Whitechapel Gallery, which for the past 100 years has housed exhibitions from Picasso to Pollock, Ade quoted John Ruskin to us – “Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.” On that stirring note, with all the stories of the afternoon ringing in our ears, we retired to the Halal Restaurant, established in 1939 and the oldest Indian eatery in east London, and finally to the Oliver Conquest, a pub that was once the bar for the original Garrick Theatre, and which now offers more than 160 varieties of gin.

We sampled too many of them, of course, and paid the price next day. The Bathtub Gin did me in, and the night ended in slightly more Hogarthian style than we might have intended – but really, what could be more London? God love and preserve the place.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.