On Friday night I found myself stranded in Balham. Ejected from the bowels of the London Underground and keeping at bay thoughts of being savagely raped and murdered, I sent the following text message to a few close allies:
Northern Line fucked. Signal problems at Morden. The driver terminated the train at Balham. I’m now walking the streets surrounded by evil south London cunts.
If I’m never found alive, I reasoned, at least there’ll be textual evidence of my final movements.
I steeled myself for the slog to my destination: Tooting Bec (why, oh merciful God, why? …and what’s a Bec anyway??). I passed several icons of dejection whose symbolic meanings were alien to me: Balham Youth Court, an off licence called The Wine Junction, the budget German supermarket LIDL and a sinister building with a sign saying United Services & Services Rendered. “What are these unholy relics?” I screamed internally.
Finally, I began to encounter familiar signs. Fitness First, Nando’s a Kwik-Fit garage. Thank god. The temporary haven of something vaguely resembling civilisation…
Although you may not have guessed from the sentiments above, I’m actually beginning to quite like south London. Admittedly it’s a patronising fondness tinged with snootiness, but fondness all the same. I suppose my newfound tolerance has arisen from the fact that, over the past few years I’ve spent far more time south of the river than is healthy. It’s a secret liking, full of shame and regret. I can’t admit it to my north London friends. I’d be ostracised and marked out as a traitor.
As with most divides, the key to bridging the gap and getting over your prejudices is simply to bite the bullet (quite literally if you live in Battersea) and give it a try.
There are nice places south of the river. No really, there are. Dulwich, Kennington, Richmond, Greenwich, Camberwell. But for every quaint little Putney, there’s a Peckham, Lewisham, Nunhead or Plumstead Common.
Maybe it’s just a titular thing, but some of these names are enough to send chills down the spine of any north Londoner. They sound weird. They denote a barbaric wasteland perpetually stuck in 1952.
it goes further than simple linguistics. You have to be a Londoner to fully understand the north/south divide. It’s an innate, instinctive sense of right or wrong, heaven or hell. North and south London are just…….different. When I sounded people out about the differences I was told “it feels different”, “they speak funny”, “they're backwards”, and “it’s just not right”.
These comments might appear racist. If south Londoners were a race. But they’re not. They’re just a few million people who lucked out in the postal lottery birthplace stakes.
And, because there’s so little migration and cross breeding, the two sets of population gene pools remain largely isolated from one another. In a few rare cases people do migrate. Out of necessity. Or the threat of divorce. I’m not sure I could ever live down there. I’d be constantly looking over my shoulder for the knife in my back.
It’s not just us, the common folk, who see north London as superior. Nearly every building and area of notable significance or officialdom is situated in the north. Trafalgar Square, Parliament (the SW1 postcode fools nobody), Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Gherkin, the BT Tower and so on and so forth.
Perhaps the real difference is indeed phenomenological. North London is more built up and hilly. Streets seem narrower, more congested, busier. South London is flatter, and greener; it feels more open and sparsely populated. The architecture of both is remarkably different. Both have beautiful Victorian and Georgian buildings but the style varies. The metropolitan inner city in North London extends much further geographically, so even in zone 3 you are definitely still in the city. Whereas, most of the inner south is located very close to the river (and therefore the centre); an argument often used to claim southern superiority. By the time you get to zone 3 south you are in total, undeniable suburbia.
Although we are nominally sworn enemies, whenever two people from each clan get together and talk, they get along like a house on fire. Generally we enjoy the banter. Perhaps we’re not all that different after all? Maybe it’s just psychological. Maybe that big old, bendy river makes it feel different. As an old acquaintance pointed out, east and west London are far more different than north and south. He gave me a list of places that are symbiotic twins or replica versions of each other. Edmonton-Thornton Heath? Both equally grim. Belsize Park-Blackheath? Both equally fabulous.
I’m not sure how to end this blog except by saying these old engrained prejudices need to be challenged. East/west Berlin unified because the people had no choice, black and white in apartheid South Africa got over their differences (slowly). North and South can love one another. Give peace a chance man.