Until the age of twenty-five I lived in London. In Whetstone, London N.20 to be exact. It is one of the last outposts of the capital before you cross the border into Hertfordshire; a county that I have always considered, perhaps unfairly, to be one large suburb of the metropolis. But with more trees.
When I say I am a Londoner I am often asked the question ‘Oh whereabouts are you from?’ When I tell anyone who has come from say, Stoke Newington, Hackney or Dalston I get a look that suggests I am some kind of wannabe. Totteridge, Whetstone’s near neighbour, is one of the leafiest most expensive places you can live in any London Borough and how I rejoiced at being reminded that Mickie Most, Hank Marvin and Cliff Richard lived on Totteridge Lane, thereby indicating that I must come from somewhere close to the London Borough of Barnet’s equivalent of Beverley Hills. Combined, the two areas are in the top 100 richest areas in the UK, and presumably this could make Whetstone High Road London’s Rodeo Drive. However, apart from a Waitrose I don’t remember many shops that needed security guards at the door to keep us ordinary folk out.
The High Road is really a line of shops along the A1000, the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh and as such passes most people by as they travel up to meet J23 of the M25; but it was from medieval times an important stop for stage coaches as they travelled out of the City. The lump of rock outside The Griffin Pub was, we were told at school, the ‘whetstone’ after which the original village was named and on which soldiers sharpened their blades on the way to the Battle of Barnet in April 1471.
Whetstone is very different from Totteridge. But it is also very different from Dalston or Hackney. So am I really a wannabe Londoner, brought up in a pseudo London postal district that became home to aging pop stars, football managers, and Gillian Taylforth? A sort of retirement home at the end of the Northern Line?
I have been trying to find out who I think I am from long before they made television programmes out of far more interesting stories than mine. I was motivated by one main goal; to establish my London credentials. An obsession with the Georgian London of John Keats and the Victorian London of Dickens was probably behind my decision to study nursing at the London Hospital in Whitechapel. It has a fascinating history and days off discovering the City and shopping on Commercial Road made up for the fact that I had clearly chosen the wrong career.
A late cousin of mine was a keen genealogist before the internet made research so much easier and from her I learnt a lot about my father’s side of the family. With our French surname my dad always longed to establish a Huguenot connection, although I am not sure why; he hated the French with a passion. It seems though, that instead of being persecuted and impoverished weavers my father’s ancestors were illiterate bricklayers and labourers from a part of London referred to as Somers Town, an area that came to be dominated by the three stations of King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston. Living as they did in St Pancras, my grandfather and his father before him enjoyed a better standard of living when they found work on the railways. Where earliest records show them in overcrowded areas eventually subject to slum clearances, they later moved out to Camden and then Kentish Town. However, apart from a Great Grandmother who adopted unwanted children in return for quantities of gin they were disappointingly boring, but they were at least London born and bred.
My mother’s family were much harder to pin down, but in recent years I have discovered that I am descended from a sailor who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar and from a long line of coffee and eating house owners. I can imagine (for I am sure it is all imagination) that they served all the famous wits, radicals and literary folk of London society that congregated in such establishments in the 18th and 19th centuries. The evidence shows they were baptised and registered in and around Shoreditch and St Pancras, until my grandfather’s parents moved the family out to Holloway in the late 1800’s. My grandmother came from a family heavily involved in silver engraving and chasing in and around the Clerkenwell area where such artisans congregated in the 19th century. Her family is the one I have focused on in previous posts on this blog such as ‘An Unsound Mind’. Mental health issues pervade their story to such a degree that a great uncle of mine murdered his ex girlfriend and then killed himself, his mind apparently turned by the Great War and his story is to be published in an article I have written for the December issue of Family Tree magazine. The family had moved gradually out through Pentonville to Holloway and then Hornsey where the tragedy occured in 1922. My mother was born close by in a flat on the Stroud Green Road.
So where does this leave me? I am currently in the West Country with all the evidence I need to establish myself as a bona fide Londoner. Why has the search for my roots been so important to me?
The best way I find to explain it now is to compare the way I feel about London to the way my husband feels about his Irish heritage. I don’t feel ‘English’ as such and get no satisfaction from saying I am ‘British’. But I am a Londoner and that is all the identity I need.