Atlantic Cities

When Travel Writing Goes Wrong: London's 'City of Villages,' in Formal Wear

When Travel Writing Goes Wrong: London's 'City of Villages,' in Formal Wear
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Compared to its coverage of exotic, misunderstood Berlin, the international travel press doesn’t do too badly by London. Sure, there are the usual platitudes about a "city of contrasts" (which city isn’t?) and occasional howlers such as this piece that places St. Paul’s Cathedral in the East End, but generally coverage is reasonably up to the minute, not least because so many good international writers actually live here. But just because foreign coverage is barely a step behind British doesn’t mean it’s always right. British writing on London isn’t exactly a cliché-free zone, and home-grown platitudes are as debased a coinage as any. Here are five of the most widely written misconceptions about the city.


Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Formal London
It’s easy to spot Americans in the crowd at a London theater – they’re the ones who look like they’ve come dressed for prom night.  Misled by Downton Abbey and other sepia-tinted British exports, first-time visitors come convinced they’ll find Londoners ready to faint with mortification if they see them wearing the wrong shade of evening glove. American writers feed this fascination with a London that no longer exists, leading journalists like this one who attended a London wedding to say preposterous things like "in proper English society…you never introduce yourself." It’s the same spirit that gets USA Today telling its readers that when clubbing in London "a pair of black slacks is better than jeans," as if they’re going to meet their accountant.

Granted we still have a queen who expects to be bowed to, and yes, London has a few faux-musty corners where old English stiffness is still pantomimed for the international rich – and yes, I am writing this wearing a starched collar and tailcoat. But the view of London as buttoned up and deferential is getting a bit old and threadbare itself. With the English National Opera recent announcing that it welcomed people in jeans and sneakers (though I’ve been going dressed like that for years) London has precious few places left where formal wear looks anything but weird. If you want crystallized politeness go to Germany, where colleagues still address each other by their last names and titles, or Paris, where I’ve seen people having public shouting matches while still calling each other "Monsieur."


Shoreditch, London. Photos by Elena Rostunova /Shutterstock (left) Douglas Freer/Shutterstock (left)

The Last Big Thing
London is the center of a property speculation orgy that would make Caligula’s birthday party look prim, so it’s hardly surprising that fresh neighborhoods are declared the next big thing on a weekly basis here. Rents shoot up so rapidly in "hot" areas that everyone who contributed to the much-vaunted bigness of the last big thing quickly gets flicked onwards like a pinball. A familiar pattern across many cities, of course, this means that when you read of a new creative hub in London, you’re either too early or too late. So when the L.A. Times recommended still lively Shoreditch last winter, the crowd who had made it hip had started moving on some time before.

On the other hand, giggles haven’t yet subsided after Italian Vogue’s 2007 declaration of enduringly grungy New Cross as "the New Montmartre" (because of its, er, chicken shops and TK Maxx?). Travel writers aren’t to blame for this – everything moves so fast that it’s hard even for locals to keep up. In the neighborhood where I grew up – a next big thing of the '90s – I bump into rock stars and Bond girls in the supermarket nowadays, which feels a bit like seeing my old socks on TV.

Village on the Thames
Describing London as a "city of villages” where “each neighbourhood has its own character” is such a well-worn cliché that the New York Times deemed the concept "notorious" even back in 1993. Certainly, London has absorbed other settlements as it’s grown (often towns rather than villages), but which metropolis hasn't? London’s self-branding as village-y is less about any quasi-rural character than about British discomfort with the idea of the big city – small and monocultural, you never have to rub up against the "wrong sort" in a hamlet. 

There’s no end to London’s village-itis. Even this 1930s market and this massive central warehouse development have been re-branded as villages, despite their being in some of London’s most rawly urban neighbourhoods and having barely a pot plant, let alone a tree, between them. But just like trend spotters who pronounce a rundown area hip after noticing three pairs of skinny jeans there, describing London’s sprawl as village-like requires some selective myopia. Maybe it’s just that "London, city of office blocks" or "London, home of the council flat" don’t quite have the same ring to them? 


London's Harvey Nichols, via Wikimedia Commons*

Rip Off City
Tourists love telling us Londoners that our city is expensive, as if the news were as novel and shocking as the discovery of life on Pluto. They’re right of course – even guidebooks published in Britain like to lay into the city’s high prices. Still, many visitors do themselves few favors by hanging out in West London and patronizing gaudy cash suckers like Harrods. In fact, London isn’t actually bad value for everything – tourists from mainland Europe sometimes come here to shop for clothing, because it’s often cheaper outside the designer bracket. As a regular London resident, I am never asked to pay $30 for a cocktail, or to fork out $45 for the pleasure of seeing some ugly wax dolls, and it’s not because I know a network of secret tunnels that take me to locals-only places, or because I’m necessarily a tightwad.

London, Food Heaven
Following decades of horror at our dreary food, the press has started proclaiming London’s status as Europe’s new food capital, a city where the streets are apparently paved with truffle. Accurate pieces like this one now point out that the city’s restaurants certainly have improved, but journalists too often refer to the sort of places you’d only go for an anniversary dinner or a lottery win.

Down the food chain, I still struggle to find a decent sandwich in Central London, while the South Asian restaurants the city is known for, such as those in famous Brick Lane, often make do with gloopy parodies of their home countries’ food made for a crowd happy with anything as long as it burns. Even gastropubs, partly credited with reviving the better aspects of traditional British food, have been caught out serving up reheated boil in the bag meals. And for every visitor who happens on somewhere great, there’s always another who walks lazily into this well-located but dire chain of steakhouses. If it's diversity that makes a great food city, London is easily Europe’s capital. If quality is key, however, it’s a little down the league table.

* This photo has been updated to London's Harvey Nichol's store.
 
Keywords: London, Tourism

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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