The divided city

The Ruby DOlls in NewcastleYesterday I spent the day in Newcastle (well, six hours of it was on a train) with The Ruby Dolls where we passed a sublime afternoon in a gorgeous country house hotel, with high tea and open fires and everyone waiting on us hand and foot.  We were singing for a private birthday party (I know, long way to go, it must have been someone special).

I remember the first time I went to a hotel as a child, for a celebration dinner.  I was awed by the luxury and I thought, ‘This is how I want to live when I’m grown up. I want to stay in places like this’.

Again, a few days ago I was taken by a client to an Oyster bar.  I’ve never really gone in for oysters (to me they taste like sea slime), but this place was beautiful, serene, tranquil: a complete oasis.

In my life I weave between different worlds.  Sitting in that swanky bar I thought how many parts of London, and parts of the UK, so many of us never see; there are invisible walls that make completely different but parallel lives possible.  Some of that is about choice, but much of it is about growing segregation.

The contrasts can be especially sharp for performers, I think.  Hired by the people with money, but usually paid relatively little, we swim in and out of swanky hotels and tired dressing rooms, retreating back to our homes in the cheaper parts of town at the end of the night.  But we are at least mobile.

The contrasts of our city can be bewildering, but when we can traverse them they can also be stimulating. I’ve been reading the excellent Londoners by Craig Taylor, which is a compilation of the experiences and reflections of people who live or work in the city, or who left, or who never want to.  It’s a fascinating smorgasbord of windows on the city and is currently inspiring me to write a new show for The Ruby Dolls about the mad, joyous and tragic stories you can stumble across here.

But there is part of this story which should disturb us deeply.

On Sunday, a senior policeman came and spoke at church, reminding me that Southwark, where I live, has the highest rates of knife crime and serious youth violence in the whole of London, a whole 30% higher than the next borough on the list.  And most of that emanates from council estates like the one I live on.

I remember the innocence of my childhood joy at fancy hotels, and the belief that I could choose a path through life that would make them part of my regular landscape.  It doesn’t seem important any more, but when I find myself in a fancy lobby I can’t help but wonder how in the same city some people get to see only the shiny bits, while others are relegated to a world of security doors and metal lifts that smell of wee.  Even though they might live on the same street.

To encounter so many different experiences of life in the same city, the same country, the same world, leaves me wondering where I fit, and where I should fit.  It challenges my priorities, demands and expectations of life.  And it leaves me with a nagging, persistent, grumbling conviction that all the gaping inequality is ugly, unjust, and making our world more dangerous.

My friend Jon Yates wrote an article for the Huffington Post earlier this year about how the UK is becoming more segregated.  He challenged his readers: “Look at your friends. Did they go to university? They mostly did if you did. Do they receive benefits? They mostly do if you do. Are they white? They mostly are if you are.”

I’d highly recommend a read.  He urges us to reconnect, join the dots, stop mistaking passive tolerance for integration.  I think we only start to care about the inequality and the segregation when we experience the contrasts ourselves, and we only do that through making friends with people who are different to us.

I’d love to hear how the way you see the world, or your neighbourhood, has changed because of unusual friends you’ve made…



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4 thoughts on “The divided city

  1. Andy in Germany

    I see this as a carpenter as well (there’a a saying here: “A carpenter can’t afford a carpenter”) Our customers are almost all white, middle class Germans even though we live in a very multicultural region and live in houses the like of which a carpenter couldn’t afford.

  2. Naomi

    I too am constantly aware of it. Even in a school where there is a 50/50 ethnic mix, still the people involved in school fete, parents forum, fundraising, even International Evening are overwhelmingly white and middle class. Why?


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