I went to university in Leeds, longer ago than it feels.
I didn’t know England very well. I wasn’t born here and neither were my parents. I knew London. London WAS England to me.
People were certainly different in Leeds. Friendlier, polite, less formal. They talked to me at bus-stops. I learned to queue for buses and to thank the driver on my way out. I loved it when strangers called me ‘love’.
That sort of friendliness doesn’t work in London. It’s too big and there are too many people. The city tests your nerves on a daily basis: the cattle-crush on the tube, the slow walkers, the fast walkers, the tourists, the traffic, the cancelled trains, the overpriced housing, the very rich and fortunate, the very poor and unfortunate; the unfairness of it all. (Other cities have their problems, but the expense and claustrophobia is unparalleled.)
Seen this way, acting like a complete arsehole would make perfect sense in London. But most Londoners are not arseholes.
Most Londoners are nice enough to stand patiently, and not make a scene, when they’re packed onto the tube in 40-degree heat. Nice enough to turn a blind eye when a person sits next to them on the bus and starts talking to themselves. Nice enough to welcome the world – my family – into the city, to see us as a positive.
There are too many Londoners – and too much of London – for us to be friendly all the time. We’re late. We’re underpaid. We dream of escape. We walk past thousands of people a day and saying hello would take too long.
Politeness is a multi-layered thing. A palimpsest.
The other day I was waiting for a bus in Angel. When it finally came, I let a woman with a baby get on first, and then got on.
‘So rude,’ said the young man behind me, to his girlfriend. ‘She didn’t even say “excuse me”.’
He said it loud, so that I would hear. I turned and raised my eyebrows. They were carrying travel bags – they were from out of town.
‘This fucking city,’ I could imagine him saying, when they arrived at their hotel. ‘People have no manners.’
Ironically, neither did he, with his passive-agressive rudeness masquerading as old-fashioned, small-town politeness.
He didn’t know that London doesn’t follow the bus etiquette of the regions. You just get on. Sometimes you queue – most often at the first stop on the route – but usually you don’t. If you’re nice, you make way for elderly people, parents with children, and the people who waited the longest. On that occasion, that person would be me.
Here’s another thing a person – an old man – once said to me while I waited for a bus in another English city. OK, it was Leeds. Lovely, friendly Leeds.
‘Where you from?’
‘London,’ I said, knowing that such questions, when asked by white English strangers, are generally loaded.
‘Where you really from?’
‘I’m British.’ (I didn’t have citizenship at this time, but I knew I had to lie.)
He ignored me after a while. A black teenage boy walked past.
‘Coon!’ shouted the old man.
I’ve been told to get out of the country a few times in my life, but never in London. Bad things happen in London. People live in their own world. But politeness is relative.