I love London. It’s not really fashionable to say so these days – hating our capital has become something of a national pastime. It was inevitable, really, that London would itself become a front in the culture war: a synonym, like the liberal metropolitan elite, tofu-eating wokerati and anti-growth coalition, for everyone Tory politicians dislike and don’t think are worth listening to.
And you know what? If some people really want to write off a city of nine million residents that accounts for nearly a quarter of the UK’s GDP because there are a couple of vegan noodle bars, fine. Part of the trade-off of big city life is accepting that the place you live will be demonised for no good reason by people trying to score political points. You get used to it.
But there is one accusation about London that I cannot tolerate, and it is this: Londoners are unfriendly. We are a cold, hostile people, the argument goes. We race around on our Tubes and buses with our headphones on and our collars up, utterly focused on what’s ahead. We consider eye contact on public transport a breach of personal space, and have perfected the art of ignoring our surrounding travellers. We do not stop to chat to strangers, and if a stranger should attempt to chat to us, we flinch at the intrusion and ignore them. Where, the non-Londoners ask haughtily, is our warmth and compassion?
To which the answer is: everywhere, as long as you don’t solely define “warmth and compassion” as “willingness to indulge in unsolicited conversations while travelling”. It’s true that Londoners, for the most part, do not see the daily commute as a chance to learn more about their fellow passengers. In a city where personal space comes at a premium, the time en route from our crowded flat-shares to our open-plan offices is a rare opportunity to find some inner calm. Earbuds in and eyes glued to a book, we cast protective bubbles around ourselves in the rush hour crush and signal our desire not to be disturbed.
I suppose if you step into a Tube carriage hoping to make new friends, that attitude might come across as hostile. So too might the annoyance seasoned travellers display at those who waver at the ticket barriers or choose the jam-packed stairways as the place to get out their map. But again, this is a case of mismatched expectations, not innate unfriendliness. I knew a man who despaired at Londoners’ rudeness for impatiently pushing past him when he repeatedly stood on the wrong side of the escalator. He didn’t stop to consider whether he, as a visitor to the city, might have more freedom to proceed at a leisurely pace than those who lived and worked here, nor how he might himself have been rather impolite by failing to read the signs and observe the customs of the place he had come to.
Which is a shame, because if you bother learn the etiquette and adjust your preconceptions, you will find London one of the friendliest places in the world. It may be crowded and polluted and overpriced, but it is also teeming with life and home to every type of community you could dream of. Wherever you’re from, whatever you do, you can find your tribe here. We’re a city of subcultures, of neighbourhoods built around interests rather than geography. Board game cafés, church choirs, gay badminton teams, fetish clubs, book groups – and yes, vegan noodle bars too. Your local pub may turn out to have a weekly ukulele singalong night, or you might find a trance rave happening on Hampstead Heath. And wherever you go, there will be people there ready to welcome you, who don’t care what your accent is or what postcode you were born in but who are simply happy to have found one of their own.
On New Year’s Day, Sadiq Khan tweeted a picture of this year’s fireworks display with the London Eye all lit up in rainbow colours and the caption “Our diversity is our greatest strength”. I don’t usually buy into PR platitudes but this one is hard to argue with. London is a place where diversity is so ingrained we don’t even see it. It’s just part of the furniture: the gay bars next to the churches next to the basement where the secret societies meet to plot their global takeover on the second Tuesday of the month. The ethos of our city is live life as you like and let others do the same by staying out of their way.
That gruffness visitors might feel when we avoid eye contact and pretend not to notice the people around us is in itself a form of welcome. We don’t care – and that means we don’t judge. It’s infuriating to see our indifference to other lifestyles be rebranded as inhospitable. Like all those clichéd Christmas films where the heroine leaves the big city to return to the small town she grew up in and realises what she needed was there all along, it gets everything the wrong way round. Of course people can be happy in the countryside or the suburbs, but a place where you can be totally anonymous isn’t cold or impersonal – it’s liberating. London accepts anyone willing to trade a few hundred square feet of living space for the unlimited freedom to build a community that works for them. How can you call you that unfriendly?
If you don’t believe me, just listen to the advice Mrs Brown gives Paddington Bear: “In London everyone is different, and that means anyone can fit in.” There are nine million of us and countless opportunities for whoever comes here to make the friends of a lifetime. Just don’t try to find them by harassing strangers on the Tube.
[See also: Why we shouldn’t defend main character syndrome]