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30 August 1999

Why are Londoners all the same?

There's life and fun beyond the capital, writes Ruth Pitt, who found both in Leeds

By Ruth Pitt

We come to London in our thousands. Like worker bees on a high-speed rat track, we bustle in from Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow to do our business with the capital city and then head home.

We’re curiously schizophrenic animals. We live and raise our families in often leafy provincial suburbs but we can match any Hampstead veteran when it comes to dining in Soho, and we’d most definitely beat the best of them hands down if challenged to name the fastest route by Tube from King’s Cross to Kensington or Euston to Palmer’s Green. We swing around like monkeys, stay overnight now and then, and take our trading trophies home to boost the local economy by stealth.

We’re the true metropolitans – not limited to one city but forced by commercial necessity to be at home in two. From our inter-city vantage point we make some interesting discoveries about capital-city life. More than anything else, I am astounded at the social ring-fencing that is endemic among London professionals.

Whole streets appear to be occupied by doctors, others by television executives, still further ones by lawyers. Everyone fits, everyone is beautiful, everyone is the same. These are well-paid professionals prepared to live in a converted hat-box with a garden the size of a cat flap in order to get the right postcode.

They tell me (with irritating frequency) that I’m lucky because I can buy a turreted mansion in Batley for the price of a one-bedroom studio flat (probably converted from a lock-up garage) in Notting Hill. But this is where their envy and their knowledge of British diversity begins and ends – fittingly, at the estate agent’s door.

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Their collective ignorance of provincial life is astounding. I live only 200 miles away in Leeds, but it might as well be outer space. I’ve been asked by adults who consider themselves educated whether Leeds is in the Peak District. I’ve had people offer to fly to Yorkshire in order to spare themselves what they assume is a seven-hour rail journey (the fast train from Leeds takes one hour 55 minutes). Others have expressed amazement on discovering that we have Sainsbury’s and can buy shiitake mushrooms by the wretched bucketful if we wish to.

Kensington is a classic of social uniformity. When I shop in Kensington I marvel at its opulence, but everyone looks the same. They obey the rules of social membership, and their instinctive avoidance of anywhere as unwholesome as Mile End or Ilford has led them truly to assume that the whole of London is full of people who are exactly like themselves.

Kensington women are beautiful and demanding. If they’re not they don’t shop in Kensington. The older ones have skin so deeply bronzed that it seems wasted on one lifetime – perhaps their hides should be tanned and made into Gucci handbags when they die. Marvellous. They could bequeath themselves as accessories to their daughters.

Don’t get me started on the men. The stereotypical wealthy Yorkshire businessman may be vile, but his counterpart in London actually believes he’s better, for no other reason than that he lives in London. You couldn’t really shove a sheet of toilet tissue between them, but at least the Yorkshireman knows what he is.

I have nearly died of boredom at London parties where the conversation could more productively be written on paper squares and pulled at random from a hat. Personal judgements are based on a notion of style that is no more than extreme conformism.

Whatever the profession, the social circle is a vertical universe which, like the best tornadoes, ignores all in its path and clings only to itself. Blinded by the glorious conformity of every beech-veneered eating house in west London, these people come to believe that theirs is a unique claim to design elegance, to sophistication, to style.

In Leeds, when I shop, I see fabulously ostentatious examples of brazen Northern wealth queuing up for the new-season Prada in Harvey Nichols, but I see women wearing BHS anoraks in there, too. The city market is right behind the best street in town, so at Harvey Nichols you buy your Gucci and then at the market you buy sweet potatoes, cheap colanders and better fish than you could find in Billingsgate.

Remarkably, in our great British cities people do have nannies and cleaners and gardeners, too, but unlike in London they’re likely to live close by. They will share shops, parks, even bus stops with their employers. In London I swear they’re bussed in from townships in Watford. In fact, they’re even bussed in from Yorkshire, where nanny agencies report that Londoners consider Northern girls to be more honest and reliable. Perhaps they check their teeth and fetlocks, too.

I’m not talking here about a tiny minority; I’m talking about thousands upon thousands of pleasant, well-off families who presumably did once talk to a cabbie or show an interest in their childminder’s family life. What’s happened to them? Why do they now deduct social brownie points from anyone who wears naff shoes or speaks with a Cardiff accent?

They should rediscover the joys of social diversity. It’s why I stay in the North. My London friends tell me I should take advantage of the undoubtedly superior career opportunities in London, but in truth I can’t bear the thought of mixing only with people just like me.

So I shall rest in Leeds awhile – even if it does mean the 7am train and the work schedule of a cabinet minister. At least when I get home I’ll have tripe on my table and a whippet for company.

Ruth Pitt is editor of BBC’s “Everyman”

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