George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Monday 23 October 2006
Pre-project Plans Part 3
London, the global city
Here are two snapshots of London life. On Sunday 11th March 2007, Chelsea played Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It was a repeat of the famous ‘Cockney Cup Final’ of 1967, the first all-London affair, when the teams were exclusively British. On Sunday, the 28 players who made it onto the pitch were from 14 different nations. The goals were scored by a Bulgarian, a Ghanaian, an Egyptian, and an Ivorian, with two from the British (or, in football terms, English) Frank Lampard.
Two years ago, four suicide bombers attacked the London transport system. 52 people were killed, on three tube trains and a bus. Everyone killed was a Londoner, but the people that died that day had been born in 18 different countries. The details painted an even more disparate picture. One man had been born in Vietnam with a Japanese surname, and had spent most of his life in New York. There was an Italian woman who was engaged to a Muslim of Pakistani background, an Afghani who escaped from the Taliban, and an Israeli fleeing the suicide bombs in her homeland. From Turkey, Mauritius, and Iran, from Poland, Ghana and Sri Lanka, they had all come to London for a new life.
London is a global city. For some, this is a contentious statement, a reference to ‘creeping multiculturalism’. For others it’s a welcome recognition of how life really is – something to promote and celebrate. Over three hundred languages are spoken in London and a third of its current inhabitants were born overseas, but just how cosmopolitan is London? For centuries it was the hub of an Empire but, as globalisation gathers force, do the inhabitants of London represent a microcosm of the whole planet? Would we be able to find a representative from every country living and working in London? Could we find the world in one city?
It seemed like an immense challenge. To give ourselves some boundaries, we set some ground rules.
1. We were not allowed to find anyone who was an employee of a country's government (for example, no ambassadors, Kings or Queens).
2. The people we found had to be living and working in London, so we couldn’t count people who were solely here to study.
3. Tourists, holidaymakers, people who were lost – none of these counted either.
4. We acknowledged that it might be impractical for the subject to produce a passport as proof of nationality. We were happy to accept their testimony, sometimes backed up with a brief quiz about their country. It’s fine, we’re not policemen.
5. We're going to attempt to complete the project within a year - that way, we can get a picture of the kind of city London was during a defined period of time.
6. By ‘London’, we mean within 'Greater London', (the City of London plus the 32 London Boroughs).
7. By ‘all the countries of the world’, we mean the 192 countries recognised by the UN as its members.
This last rule seemed initially the simplest of the lot, but any cursory examination of what is meant by a ‘country’, ‘nation’ or ‘state’ leads you into the dark backwaters of Wikipedia and worse, where pedants battle over semantic definitions. In the real world as well, of course, there are ongoing struggles over who lives where, who has the right to name their own land, and who has the right to rule over it. On the relatively facile end of the spectrum are helpful friends who ‘know someone who is Welsh and lives in Hammersmith’, on the more volatile end are refugees from places such as Palestine, Taiwan, Kashmir and Kosovo who (under our UN-based terminology) are from a ‘country’ they do not recognise as home.
And so, armed with little more than a map, a notebook, and some very un-British plans to speak to strangers in the street, we headed out to try to meet 192 people. Who would we find? What would their stories tell us about the world today? And what did they think of this massive, stinking, exciting, expensive, historic and turbulent metropolis that we all call home?