All cities are shapeshifters, but London is special. London is a palimpsest of places gone but not lost. Even as it is taken apart and rebuilt reaching to the skies, London remains rooted in the lay of the land, shore ditches, hills and fields still giving their names to the neighbourhoods upon them, and all bisected by the great snaky tidal river.
Born in Burnt Oak, Robert Elms grew up on one of those hills — Notting — and he would be sad but not remotely surprised that a Google search today cites first the film and then offers the question: ‘Is Notting Hill a real place?’ It was, he would say. Or, once upon a time, it was. Today, ‘it is international, aspirational, like a living Patek Philippe advert’.
London Made Us is a deeply nostalgic memoir, a celebration of the dirty, slummy, sometimes dangerous and sickening but utterly vital past, and a stinging critique of present pseudo-posh. Yet Elms recognises, if sometimes reluctantly, the importance of the passions of young people in London today who know something of history. This last is a resolution of what might otherwise be too stark a paradox, but memoirs should offer at least a glimmer of hope, when the author himself is still alive to have it and share it with his family and readers.
Elms shares much on his popular midday BBC Radio London show and via his delightful Instagram account, @robertelmsshow. His earlier, narrower memoir The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads (2005) celebrated London cool as he was growing up; and now the death of his mother Eileen Elizabeth Elms shapes London Made Us. ‘This is no longer my London,’ she told her son from her hospital bed in 2011, and from that day he began to think of the idea that ‘in essence your city dies with you’.
A black-cab driver who listens to Elms’s radio show offers not only a cross-town trip but comfort; black-cab drivers are a part of London that, one hopes, will never pass.