Class conscious

At £25, I'm waiting for the paperback of London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd, but when I was sampling it in my local Waterstone's it fell open at a page on which Dostoevsky was recalling having observed the jarring sight of a drunken tramp amid a crowd of plutocrats on some London street.

This, indeed, is London: different classes rubbing shoulders but eternally blanking one another. Reading Ackroyd, I was reminded of the time my wife and I viewed a house in what the estate agents called West Hampstead, but what I personally believed to be in Kilburn. It was quite nice, but as the owner showed us the pretty side gate to her garden, proudly explaining that this is where the servants would have entered, I noticed a burnt-out car just over the garden wall. Later, we stood in the middle of her large, well-stocked garden, as she said, with the burnt-out - or possibly, it suddenly occurred to me, bombed out - car six feet away from her: "This is a good area. We don't really get any trouble around here."

I also thought, scanning Ackroyd, of the few weeks in my early twenties that I spent living in Borough. About a third of the people in Borough are deeply into its medieval origins and Dickensian associations; another third concentrate exclusively on local supplies of Tennants Super Strength lager, while the final third are somewhere in between.

I thought also, as I returned the Ackroyd to the shelf, of the bare-bellied, string- belted tramp who once lumbered into the periodical reading-room of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, as I sat reading a copy of Country Life. There's a coffee machine in that room, with a dainty china jug containing milk. The tramp upended this jug and drank most of the milk, a white rivulet running down his brown belly as I hid behind my magazine and made a mental note to take my Institution coffee black next time.

This, I suppose, is the richness of the London so celebrated by Ackroyd and many others, but if so, it seems to me to be a richness that every middle-class Londoner devotes his or her entire life to blotting out.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Brown should hold his nerve