I’m not sure why John Cleese believes that London is ‘not really an English city any more’. Most people assumed he was being (surprisingly) racist, and was referring to the brown faces one sees and the foreign lingoes one hears all over the capital. He was roundly condemned for this, except by the Right, who were delighted to find their own xenophobic prejudices being born out by such a ‘national treasure’. In reply, he denied the ‘racism’ inference, claiming that he was referring to ‘cultural’ rather than racial factors, and in particular to the virtual ownership of much of the real estate in London by dodgy foreign millionaires and Russian money launderers. (See https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7085967/John-Cleese-defends-remarks-London-not-English-city.html.) – But in any case he’s wrong.
What is wrong is not his observation about the national and cultural diversity of London, but the two little words ‘any more’. That implies that things have changed in recent years. In fact they haven’t, in this regard at least. The distinctive thing about London, from its foundation in Roman times right through the subsequent twenty centuries, has always been its cosmopolitan character. As a world-city, it has attracted people from all over the globe, and of all classes: diplomats, businesspeople, workers, students, immigrants, political refugees, Russian Jews, Huguenots, artists, musicians, academics; and often en masse, so that one can imagine people complaining that it didn’t feel ‘English’ over and over again over the past many centuries. This has always been the nature of London, and the reason why some of us – despite the dirt and the squalor, which have always been there too – love it. (I lived there, or on its edges, for the first twenty years of my life, so I know. Cleese spent those same years far away in stuffy Weston-super-Mare.) It’s one of the reasons Shakespeare went to live there, to hob-nob with aliens from all over. Just think how dull his plays would have been if he’d never left ‘English’ Stratford upon Avon to seek his fortune in the great city! It’s the foreigners who have always made London. In a way its cosmopolitanism is the most English thing about the place.
For in this way London reflects – albeit in in a concentrated form – one of the major historical characteristics of England, and of Britain: which is precisely this cosmopolitanism that Cleese finds so un-English. Britain’s history from way back has been one of immigration, emigration, acculturation, racial mixing, openness, inclusiveness, a world view rather than a narrow parochial one: or at least, it has been when she has been at her best. It may seem counter-intuitive, but, by one way of looking at it, England could be said to be at her most English when she is most international. And that’s why – pace my favourite comic actor – London is still the most English, even British, town in the land.
My next British history book was going to be on this general theme. Its provisional title, in fact, was Cosmopolis. But I can’t see it happening now – too old and tired. I have a volume of essays possibly coming out which will touch on the subject, but only if I can find a publisher for it. I’m waiting for Bloomsbury to get back to me.