Small towns, small islands, small minds

Yesterday this tweet was posted by the comedian and actor John Cleese, which (not for the first time I might add) gave rise to the widespread suspicion that Basil Fawlty, much as he may have been based on a real Devon hotelier, was not entirely an act after all:

I’ve lived in (outer) London all my life, except for periods spent at boarding school (in Ipswich, not a posh one) and university (Aberystwyth). There are some nine million of us and for most of us it’s the only England we have ever known except for brief trips out for holidays and the like. It’s a city in England and most people speak English. It’s also the capital of the United Kingdom, not just of England.

London is also a major world city, a financial centre, a city with several major universities where people come from the world over to learn and to teach. It also has several important hospitals which attract both staff and patients from all over the country and the world. It has world-famous shops and restaurants and, currently six Premier League football teams, three of which have fans around the world. It has, for decades if not centuries, been a place people want to live and has attracted people from all over the country, as well as migrants from around the world. Some stay for a while, some settle here.

Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) recoiling from a Black man in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck, in the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers

A major world city is not like a small town. London is not Market Harborough much as Paris is not a rural small town in the Midi or one of its many other regions and New York is not “Middle America” or a small town in, say, Missouri. It is metropolitan and not provincial, which some capitals are: small and fairly homogeneous in population. You want to live in one of those places, they are there. Living in a big city offers variety; have you seen the range of food on offer in a small Co-op in a place like Tywyn? In a big city you can get fruit and vegetables from all over the world and eat a variety of cuisines in any of the numerous restaurants. OK, most people do not have the money to eat out every day and most would not want to if they did, but most can eat out once in a while and they do not need to go to the same place twice, although they can if they find a good one, of course. Diversity gives richness and variety to people’s lives as well as the landscape.

In response to replies to his tweet, Cleese, who has moved to the Caribbean island of Nevis which is a major tax haven, has said he is glad to be living in a place which is “Murdoch-free” and which is not a centre for Russian money laundering. Yet, every small town in ‘real’ England has access to Murdoch papers (and Murdoch-owned Sky TV) as does London. The money laundering and its effect on the property market affects everyone, not just the ‘English’ (white) people in London. The increased costs of living makes everyone except landlords and the older generation, who bought their houses in the 60s and 70s and have long since paid off their mortgages, poorer whether they are ‘English’ or not. It’s also true that much of London has become a building site in the last twenty years or so and that visiting the central area has become a lot less pleasant in part because of this, but again, this has nothing to do with its diversity, and if anything, it is harmful to it.

Cleese links the supposed ‘un-Englishness’ of London with the ‘fact’ that it showed the highest vote to remain in the EU of all British cities. In fact, a number of British cities scored higher Remain votes, including Liverpool (though not all of Merseyside), Aberdeen, Oxford and Bristol. Birmingham, which also has a high ‘ethnic’ population, voted to leave as did a number of the towns around Manchester which also have high non-white populations (Manchester proper voted to remain). Many rural districts in the south, notably in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, voted to remain. Most EU nationals were not allowed to vote in the referendum; only British, Irish, Maltese and Cypriot nationals were, so even in London, the results reflect what the British people in these areas think. However, many of us have family members from other EU countries and so it’s natural that these people will have voted to stay in, the better to maintain links to those families. If you have friends and family who are of a different background to your own, you are less likely to have an insular mentality.

London’s a great city. It’s a world city, with a lot of England and a lot of the rest of the world. Its diversity makes it interesting and fun to live in. I can’t say I would never want to live anywhere else, but if I did, I would want to live somewhere fairly close to it, not on a small island or in a small village with other ‘refugees’ from the diversity that makes London what it is.

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