London has many faces Bush won't see

Outside central city are poor neighborhoods rich in multicultural life

November 20, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Britain's capital is defined by the type of tradition President Bush saw on display yesterday, by the royalty with all its accoutrements, the brilliant red capes of the Guard of Honor, their tall bearskin headgear, the muscular horses of the Household Cavalry causing a clatter with their hooves while striding regally through the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace.

What the president will not see during his stay here is the "real London," places such as Finsbury Park, neighborhoods where greasy fish-and-chips are not a tourist must-do but a standard lunch that invariably comes with dead-flat cider or a foaming pint of brew.

"People come to London to see the museums and Parliament Square, but we are London, very much so, even if our streets are a bit run-down," said June Collins, a 40-year-old grocery worker waiting for the bus on Finsbury Park's Seven Sisters Road, which will never be mistaken for Oxford Street. "London, you know, is quite a mixed bag."

She is unconcerned about whether others know that, which in itself is a trait not shared by Central London, where people tend to take themselves more seriously.

She knows Bush will not be in her neighborhood, in the city's northeast, and she does not plan to travel to the five-square-block section of the city where the president is barricaded. She was against the war in Iraq, still is and thinks this is a bad time for Bush to visit.

But although she lives in London, she is not part of its center, part of the glitz and pomp and landmarks that seem to be the only aspect of the capital that outsiders know, and she was carrying on as normal.

There is unmistakably a London outside the center.

Drugs, dirt, danger

As in the center of town, there are soccer clubs and cricket clubs here, but nearly one in four people in Finsbury Park are addicted to one drug or another.

Central London's wide, clean streets are lined with upscale specialty shops and restaurants with white tablecloths; here mom-and-pop stores and fast-food outlets dominate and the worst parts of town are populated by strung-out prostitutes working street corners and dicey, dangerous bars.

"It's an all-right place to live, but my flat is not like Buckingham Palace," said Behar Mema, 31, who arrived in Finsbury Park from Kosovo five years ago and works in construction. "To me, this is London."

He has not been to Central London in two months, he said, because he has seen it, and while he likes its excitement, it's expensive. "I cannot spend my wages on one pint," he said.

The difference in neighborhoods is only one indication of the complexities of London overall, where contradictions abound.

The British are known for attention to protocol, but that includes a tradition of jeering and hurled insults in the House of Commons.

The British are known for their civility, but most of their newspapers have long specialized in a spectacularly brutal form of character assassination, and the British eat it up. Soccer will always trump politics on the interest meter.

The city has 7 million people - nearly 3 million of them born outside the United Kingdom - scattered in Soho and the West End, the places where tourists go for drinks and shows after a day of snapping photos of Big Ben and Tower Bridge; Kensington and Chelsea, the upscale, street-swept neighborhoods Princess Diana frequented; and the Finsbury Parks.

Finsbury Park is racially and ethnically mixed, with the clipped accents of Eastern Europeans, South Americans and Middle Easterners heard as often as the roundish accents of the British.

Immigrants mix next door to the native-born; the wealthy live a subway stop away from those who are struggling financially.

Nightlife and skating

The city stubbornly hangs onto its 11 o'clock pub-closing time, but it takes no back seat to places such as Madrid or Paris in its nightlife.

Illegal after-hours bars have long existed in London, but the city is now moving toward legal 24-hour drinking establishments.

In the southern neighborhood of Brixton, marijuana has been decriminalized and other areas of the city are following suit. The walking tours of such topics as "Literary London" still carry on, but now a group of thousands of in-line skaters have followed the lead of other European cities and close down streets on Friday nights for organized mass skates.

The city's mayor, Ken Livingstone, a leftist politician in the cheerleader mold of New York's Ed Koch, is campaigning for re-election on the newfound energy of his city.

Time and again, he stresses that the city needs to use its traditions as an anchor to steady it but not to hold it in place.

"London was built on the generations of new arrivals who have brought innovation, culture and new ideas and whose hard work has helped make this one of the most exciting cities in the world," he said recently.

Collins, before hopping on her bus, said excitement is fine, but that is not why she lives in Finsbury Park-London.

"It works out quite well," she explained. "I live happily here, but when I want to spend a day away, I can go to the other London."

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