What is the voice of London? Aoife Mannix on the importance of oral history
June 27, 2012
I’ve been watching the BBC’s The Secret History of Our Streets. It’s a fascinating unearthing of how much London has changed over the years. What makes it particularly appealing though is the way it captures the voices of ordinary Londoners telling the stories of where they grew up and where they live now. Instead of academic historians or famous celebrities, you get to watch history as told by those who have actually lived it. It makes it very personal and real.
Deptford High Street is a place I regularly find myself walking through. It’s not particularly beautiful or of obvious historic interest. Still I’m fond of it in a way I’d have found impossible to explain till I watched the Secret History episode showing how it had once been considered ‘the Oxford Street of South London’. I found myself getting genuinely angry at the demolishing of people’s homes to make way for tower blocks. It’s not just nostalgia for the old over the new. It’s the fact that the urban developers seemed to have lost sight of what should have been their number one priority, the people who were going to live in these concrete monstrosities. They seem to have had an extremely patronising and superior attitude to the locals, just because they were working class.
It made me think that recording the stories of ordinary people is not simply interesting or quirky. It’s actually of huge political and social importance. I’ve just started reading Craig Taylor’s Londoners (The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate it, Live It, Left it and Long for It). Taylor is a Canadian who moved to London at the turn of the millennium. He explains in the intro how he spent five years interviewing approximately 200 people all over London filling up over 14 notebooks. He says of his book ‘the voices are here: wise and ridiculous, refuting and improving and refracting. Each of the people I talked to demonstrated the shortcomings of any A-Z. Each person added another layer of meaning to these streets.’
This is what I’m really enjoying about the book so far. Not just the great descriptions of what London is like to arrive into but the richness of language used by its huge variety of characters. Their vastly different perspectives are reflected brilliantly in the imagery they use. A commercial airline pilot points out that ‘London has crosswinds. Nothing’s stable. Nothing’s set. It can be tough work too. If it’s rough you might duck into grey clouds at 15,000 feet, into the mist and murk…’ How very true even if you’re not trying to land a plane!
This view from above is nicely followed by an ex-offender talking about sleeping rough his first night in London. ‘And I then heard these little rustling sounds. It was all the little mice going up to the fountain and the bins to the side, and I was grateful that it was mice and not rats. I ain’t got a problem with mice.’ It reminded me of the first time I saw the tube mice darting along the tracks and found them weirdly endearing.
Indeed I had to smile at the Ugandan refugee who let the tubes pass her by because she was too scared to get on. When I first arrived in London, it took me six months to realise it was quicker to walk from Charing Cross to Tottenham Court Road than take the underground. I felt a bit like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland rushing through all those confusing tunnels. Now of course it’s second nature. But it’s good to be reminded of when it was all new and strange. What were your first impressions of London? What characters have you met that give a voice to the city? (Comments below and/or on our facebook page.)