Note to Journalists: London is not Britain

There is a mutual incomprehension between London and those parts of Britain that are not London (by “London” here I include most of the Home Counties and the satellite towns around London). There are many aspects to this incomprehension, but one that comes up more than most is the media obsession with London.
Most Londoners — and most media people — deny that such an obsession exists. “Of course it makes sense to have constant news articles about Boris Johnson,” they say, “London is the home to 20% of the population of the UK.”

And yes, it does in fact make sense to have constant news articles about Boris Johnson, and this year’s London Mayoral elections. London *is* a major city, and does need coverage. I have even seen statistical evidence that London gets *less* coverage, proportionally, than any other area of Britain with the same population, assuming you take coverage of national politics (which “just happens” to be based in London) out of the figures.

I don’t believe that’s actually true — when I used to read the Guardian, even though it was the “northern edition” I was reading, it reviewed an awful lot of West End theatre productions and performances at the Hammersmith Apollo or Wembley Arena, and few if any productions at the Liverpool Everyman or Manchester Royal Exchange, no gigs from the Manchester Apollo or the Liverpool Echo Arena. But maybe that’s a coincidence and for the fifteen years or so I bought that newspaper every day the Halle Orchestra just didn’t do much in the way of interesting music while the London Symphony Orchestra did. It’s possible, I suppose…

But take the claim that London gets, if anything, disproportionately little media coverage at face value. It *might* be right. Certainly one shouldn’t rely on one’s own biased judgement for that kind of thing. But that’s not what we’re complaining about. Rather, it’s this kind of thing.

For the Londoners who think that Northerners get upset over nothing, the apparent problem with that piece — what most of those I’ve talked to about this sort of thing in the past *think* would be the problem — is that it’s a piece about London, and changes made to the London public transport system, appearing in a national newspaper.

That isn’t the problem — the subject of the article may not be of pressing interest to those of us outside the capital, but it’s still in itself an interesting subject. I first saw this piece linked by Andrew Ducker, who lives in Edinburgh. If you’re someone who’s interested in how systems work, as I am, then an article on how to improve the flow of people through a bottleneck point by 28% is worth reading, whether it’s about London, or Munich, or New York, or wherever.

No, the problem *isn’t* that it’s yet another article about London. It’s this stuff:

It’s British lore: on escalators, you stand on the right and walk on the left.

We might be bad at dancing and expressing our feelings, but say this for the British: when we settle on a convention of public order, we bloody well stick to it. We wait in line. We leave the last biscuit. And when we take the escalator, we stand on the right. The left is reserved for people in a hurry.

The standing to the right rule, first promoted in Britain, is not mirrored all over the world

Have you spotted the problem yet? If so, congratulations — you don’y live in London!

The problem is that all of these talk about standing on the right as “a British convention”, when it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a London convention. Certainly in Manchester there’s no convention of the kind, and if anything people are more likely to stand on the left and walk on the right (something that tripped me up on my first trip to London in 2002), though there’s no formal rule here.

I checked on Twitter, just to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently been making hideous faux pas my entire life, and was told:

quite. It’s an “inside boundary zone 6 convention”. Cambridge is about 35 miles from the M25 and we don’t do it here.


Spot on. Anywhere except London, Brits simply follow the convention of driving on the left hand side of the road.

Whereas in Bradford, anyone we catch using the “ghost stairs” is burned as a witch

Apart from the last one, this seems to suggest that my experience is, in fact, the norm.

And what this suggests is that the writer of that piece has either chosen to ignore any experience they have had of any part of Britain outside London or, worse, that they have had no experience of Britain outside London. That they’ve never been to any of the major transport hubs or shopping areas in Manchester, London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Bradford, Cardiff… but that they feel perfectly entitled to generalise about all those places anyway.

And *this* kind of thing is what annoys many of us. Not the explicit conversation about London, but the constant tiny assumptions that no-one outside London really counts. Talking about buses and assuming they’re red everywhere (in most parts of the country they’re different colours depending on the operator), assuming that non-London accents have to be written in “hilarious” pseudo-phonetic language (I lost count years ago of the number of times I’ve seen Mancunians reported as saying “fook” when swearing. They don’t. They say “fuck”. Londoners say “fahrk”.).

That kind of thing — the kind of thing that people refer to as “erasure” and “microaggressions” — happens *constantly* in the media. And it’s this kind of thing, incidentally, that makes some of us so sceptical about the idea of “English votes for English laws”, or an English Parliament, or really of England at all. Because we already live in a culture entirely dominated by one city that pretends the rest of us don’t exist. Giving that city even more power by removing Scottish and Welsh influence over the decision-making process just means that the rest of England will be even more ignored than it has been.

And this is why there is a great British tradition, observed in the whole of Britain (or at least those bits that matter — I can’t think of any others off the top of my head) of hating London.

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5 Responses to Note to Journalists: London is not Britain

  1. Pingback: Interesting Links for 18-01-2016 | Made from Truth and Lies

  2. pennyb says:

    In Leeds you stand on the right or I kill you, because I RUN up the left.

  3. glyncoch says:

    Great article, and not before time. However on escalator convention I think that the author you quoted was simply quoting the Highway Code on pavements. The London and the rest argument was that the rest of us do not have Undergrounds, let alone escalators on them! And as an outsider who rarely visits London I am struck by the way that those poor people are so in love with that incomprehensible “Tube Map”. If you go by that you will pay half a weeks wages on tube fairs instead of ambling in relative comfort for a mile on London’s nice wide and relatively well maintained pavements.
    But the real problem for me about press coverage is that the “UK national papers” are full of information about English Education, Health etc, but can never be bothered to include equivalent information from Wales, Scotland or N Ireland. When publication dates differ England gets full coverage, the rest get a paragraph if we are lucky. AS I also have family in the South West of England I also note the lack of coverage of all except the areas where the journalists spend their holidays An example was last nights news about marine conservation area in which the presenters talked about one centred on Newquay, and then showed a journalist about 2 hours drive away in front of St Michaels Mount..Perhaps Londoners can all afford to travel round the country by helicopter – there are far too many of those noisy things here anyway!

    • ZenGwen says:

      There’s an underground in Glasgow, which if I remember correctly also has escalators…

      And then here in Edinburgh we’ve got Waverley which is a bit of a transport hub and has a bunch of escalators at at least one entrance…

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