In praise of indifference

Last week, I visited a friend who now lives in a medium-sized Midlands town. He\’d been in London a few weeks earlier, he told me, at a party. Later in the evening, with a few other fairly intoxicated late-30s types, he\’d ended up in a drum-and-bass club in Islington.

He was amazed at how little attention this frazzled group attracted, despite being the oldest people there by about fifteen years. It would have been very different in his home town, and not in a particularly positive way.

I started to say something about London being \’inclusive\’ and then stopped myself. I\’ve been writing too many public sector policy documents. The people in that club weren\’t being inclusive; they had just erected screens of privacy around themselves and their friends. Unless and until the newcomers did something outrageous – stripping, starting fights, lighting cigarettes – they were invisible.

Tonight, in Brixton, in Brick Lane, in Soho, people from all ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities and classes will gather to enjoy a Saturday night out. They will be in the same places, but they won\’t be together in any real sense.

Big cities like London may have weak \’social capital\’, to borrow the concept popularised by Robert Putnam in \’Bowling Alone\’, but they are also places where an astonishing variety of people manage to live (for the most part peacefully) in close proximity to others with whom they have little in common. In the urban context, strong communities can be exclusive and antagonistic, as the murderous turf wars of London gangs illustrate.

Outside the world of well-meaning platitude, Londoners do not spend an enormous amount of time \”celebrating diversity\”. Rather, we are indifferent to difference, preserving privacy in the crowd.

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