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Tale of a city: Come one, come all

Sarah Sands insists no other city can compete with the capital.

Flying in to Heathrow the other day – or rather, inching towards it in an elephant march of planes because politicians never planned for London to outstrip its own airport as it outpaced the rest of the UK – I was glad to be back. It wasn’t so much that glow of returning to home and family as the certainty that there is no place more exciting to be.

There were people in the passport queue as lean as sirloin steak and wearing tracksuits in national colours, adding to the impression that the world is pitching up on London’s doorstep. Just as it has been doing for centuries. London is built on immigration. When I see any country hit by social unrest or unreasonable taxes I wait for the entrepreneurs, the young or the privileged – and many of the underprivileged – to turn up in London.

There is the advantage of stability and language and time zone, but there is something else. London allows people to retain their dual or multiple identities. You can be Greek and English, French and English, Jordanian and English. It is why the city feels so culturally rich and complex. The Evening Standard is soon to launch a series in partnership with the British Museum to celebrate this. We want Londoners to be good citizens but we don’t require them to support the English cricket team.

Those of us who are drawn to London develop an affection for this city as great as that felt by those who have lived in it all their lives. My husband came to London from the north, and still cannot watch Billy Liar’s decision to stay there without glistening eyes: some people have the nerve to come to London, some lack it. Today the provincial journey is eclipsed by extraordinary narratives from across the world.

At the Evening Standardour letters page never used to require much spelling attention, there being only so many ways to spell John Smith. Now the letters editor has mastered dense clusters of consonants. When I worked on Londoner’s Diary more than 20 years ago the characters were Nicholas Soames, bishops and dukes. I seem to remember endless stories about a House of Lords tug-of-war match. Now the establishment is made of foreign-born art collectors, hedge-fund managers, Google bosses. Only the royal family has kept its status.

The capital’s population is eight million and rising, but the city does not feel full. It surges upwards and outwards. We do not have Paris’s stern approach to planning, but then we are a working, breathing city, not a museum. The lessons of London are straightforward. Encourage immigration. Take risks. Do not be afraid of success. Build infrastructure. So, in the teeth of a recession, we bring out the cranes. Gherkins, shards, bridges, cable cars. They say you can see France from the top of the Shard on a clear day. Let us hope the French can see us, sweeping on.

The Mittal tower has been attacked by some as clunky and utilitarian. I love it for being a tribute to the steel industry. Deep underground, Crossrail is boring through the city, preparing to move more people, faster. Building on the foundations of the Victorians, we are now planning a super-sewer. Who cannot warm to a city that boasts supermodels and super-sewers? It is mere courtesy to the rest of the country that London does not declare itself a city state. We all know that it could power ahead on its own.

Yet London means so much more than those economic powerhouse cities that rise in emerging economies across the world. Here we place a high value and trust in art and culture. Modern art flourishes, and theatre, particularly in the subsidised sector, is in a golden age. After the catastrophe of the Dome, no government would dare form a view about an artistic en - terprise. Danny Boyle’s plans for the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games were meekly accepted, though barely understood, and the cheque was signed. That is how it should be. There has been a revolution in food, too. Restaurants and street food in London are now so good that even the French have surrendered. They may come here for the lower taxes, but the food stops them from leaving.

I believe the Evening Standard embodies the fortunes of the capital, being economically New World and socially and culturally European. Troubled economic times act as an antibiotic against complacency and laziness. You need to be smart and professionally dedicated to prosper here, with a work ethic that is ferocious and immigrant-led. At the Standard we cannot remember the newspaper world that budgeted for such things as staff sabbaticals. The old model wasn’t working, so we created a new one, taking the paper free and multiplying our readership. It works economically because advertisers love that they can reach such a large chunk of the most influential and economically prosperous population in the world. It works journalistically because the ad revenues have allowed us to preserve editorial standards.

Of course, there are lessons to learn, and one is compassion. A late editor of the Evening Standard, John Leese, put it succinctly. He was a capitalist by nature, but a poor firer of employees. “You carry your wounded,” he said. There are people in this city who are being left behind and we are not going to let the world ignore them. I have realised, through working at the Standard, that London is an idea and a sensibility as well as a location. The paper tries to evoke the energy of London, but never forgets its humanity.

So, what a place. Primacy of politics, love of arts and fashion, world-class restaurants and museums and – as we found when we went out to ask Londoners about their lives – tons of sex. We are Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona in one.

Perhaps that is why the rest of the UK so detests London triumphalism. But I am tired of apologising for success. When I worked on the Daily Telegraph, the then editor, Charles Moore, rebuked me for printing an article that referred to Manchester as “two hours away”. “From where?” he asked icily. Let’s drop the pretence now that we are all equal, shall we? Two hours from London. The centre of the UK. Where everything that is most interesting takes place. Where everybody would live if they could.

Sarah Sands is the editor of the Evening Standard


This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue