A Portrait of an Ever-Changing London
Craig Taylor, 36, is a Canadian-born writer who has lived in London since 2000. He is the author of "Londoners," now out in paperback ($16.99, Harper Collins). (Michael Schmelling/MCT)
Craig Taylor, 36, is a Canadian-born writer who has lived in London since 2000. He is the author of Londoners — now out in paperback. It’s a collection of 80-some first-person essays that collectively form a portrait of the city.
Question: In your book, London seems less a melting pot and more of a stew where some people never fully assimilate.
Answer: I always view that as a positive. There are such different, strong communities in London, and while everyone doesn’t mix with everyone else, there’s certainly a kind of cohesion. I remember going through North American cities where there are dividing lines among different people — by color or by type. London has different areas and places, but is sort of saved by its messiness. The city is not as divided, thankfully, as other places.
Q: Where do you live?
A: Right now, up in North London, near Hampstead Heath — but I’ve lived all over. I first moved to Brixton and kind of crossed the river a couple times, which in this town is the real divide.
The north bank of the Thames is traditionally the home of power — where the government is. The south always had a different kind of identity. Those who live there love to play that up. They’re a bit more laid back.
Q: When Americans visit you, where do you take them to see the “real” London?
A: Usually on a walk — this is mirrored in the book by a city planner. You can walk through so many styles of architecture, remnants of history and cultures. Don’t just pop up like a gopher on the Underground. Take a walk.
Walking down Brick Lane, in East London, has particular appeal. It has had wave after wave of immigration — traditional French Huguenots (16th- and 17th-century Protestant immigrants), then it was a big Jewish area, then a big area for Indians and Bangladeshis. Walk through to see what the neighborhood is today and how it thrives . and get a sense of the lingering past — the old buildings that have housed so many different kinds of people.
I really like Edgeware Road, a Middle Eastern part of the city. The Iranian food there is incredible stuff. I love that there’s a great restaurant there, called Patogh, and 4 feet down from it on Crawford Place is The Windsor Castle — a pub stuffed with so much royal paraphernalia that it feels Victorian. The places are literally 30 seconds apart, but you feel like you’re traversing the whole world.
Q: Where do you go for peace and quiet and London?
A: I live near Hampstead Heath, one of the great parks of the world. It’s sprawling and quiet. There’s a hill there from which you can see across the city.
Q: Most amazing personal encounter when out and about in London?
A: It was with a guy I met at a tall persons club. I thought we’d be talking about where to buy long beds, which airlines have most leg room and so on. It was vaguely interesting. But I met this guy again — a Pakistani — to talk about London. He worked in finance, and had a life that was so Dickensian. The way he opened up was a reminder that life sometimes leads you to a trapdoor that will open. His story, which is in the book, says so much about London, and how people’s lives are infinitely more rich than you’d think.
Q: The most amazing spot you’ve visited?
A: The fruit market in New Spitalfields, kind of on the outskirts of town. It’s open only from midnight to 9 a.m., and people there speak in a kind of “code” language. It’s a big section in the book: I was taken around by this guy named Peter who is almost like a character from a (Martin) Scorsese film. He wheels and deals and makes all these crazy transactions through the night. It was a part of London I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t been forced out into the city.
Q: From your years there and working on this book, can you spot specific London accents?
A: To an extent — but not always by neighborhoods. It’s interesting that this is a country of signifiers, a nation of subtext. I know people here who are well-educated but who change their accents to sound like they’re from rougher bits of East London.
To the west is where people tend to speak the King’s English; there’s a bit of an accent in South London. You start to discern little things, but speech is not as regional as it once was. Again, it’s that messiness. You can no longer spot a Bermondsey or West Ham accent.