London Made Us by Robert Elms





Like many others who listen to him each day on BBC Radio London (and those currently listening will appreciate what a fantastic job he’s doing), I feel I know Robert Elms well. In my case this sense of connection is strengthened  by the fact that we ‘re both the same age and we’re both to be found at Loftus Road for most QPR home games.

There are, though, plenty of differences between us. Unlike me, Robert Elms is a sharp dresser, and very cool and connected. He is also a Londoner born and bred. I may live in London now ( in Barnes, an area which I know Elms doesn’t consider  London at all) but my childhood and adolescence were spent in Surrey, a place which felt a long way from London. Elms was brought up in Burnt Oak, far closer to the heart of London than Surrey, but still distant enough to make him feel marginalised, and sympathetic to others in the same boat. One of those is Paul Weller, of whom he writes: ‘Paul Weller, a man of similar age, attitude and attire, whom I admire enormously and whose London family were exiled even further, to Woking, carries a similar burden’ . And that’s another connection. I too align myself with The Jam frontman even if, in my case, it’s only through age and the fact that we both hail from Sheerwater  –

After reading ‘London Made Us’, his hugely enjoyable, informative and revealing work, I feel I know Robert Elms even better. When he writes of his childhood in Burnt Oak that ‘it was full of O’Keefes, Kellys and O’Neills.’ I almost think, were it not for the fact that I was in Weybridge at the time and my O’Keeffes have two ‘f’s, I could have been one of them. London may not be for me what it is, and has been, for Elms, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t seduced, and impressed, by his memoir. Reading it is very much like listening to his radio show – one moment you’re listening to a cockney geezer, the next you’re being spoken to by a sophisticated intellectual. Elms is aware of these two sides of his personality, telling us that he ‘learned to be socially and vocally schizophrenic’. Even within a sentence his writing moves from one register to another, from what Elms calls his ‘Radio 4 voice’ to his ‘back-of-a-cab’ or ‘shouting-at-referees voice’. He calls this a ‘completely unconscious chameleon’ response, and  in doing so makes us regard him, like the subject of his book, as something of a shape-shifter.

Elms’s language is just like his accent – ‘to this day I have an accent that leaps about all over the gaff’. Note that . Gaff. Not place. Gaff. Another sentence begins in Standard English only to end by stating that the building had ‘gorn’. Not gone. Gorn. Sometimes the cockney was a bit too much for this Surrey boy. I understood ‘I jumped in a sherbet’ only from the context (sherbet dab = cab). But when I came across this observation from Elms about his two linguistic selves I was baffled – ‘ I could spot a jekyll dicky or a pair of snide daisies with the best of them. But I could also talk pretty good grammar school when required’. I have no idea what a ‘jekyll dicky’ is, or indeed a ‘pair of snide daisies’. I googled both and the only thing that came up was Googlebooks directing me to Robert Elms’s ‘London Made Us’)

This transition from one register to another embodies and reflects the importance of class and social mobility in the book, issues which find their most powerful expression in Elms’s relationship with his mother. Her death, movingly described in the Introduction, together with her words ‘This is no longer my London’, provides the book’s starting point, and she and Elms’s ancestors remain a presence throughout.

I would be surprised if ‘Great Expectations’ isn’t Elms’s favourite Dickens’ novel. An early Magwitch reference alerts us to the possibility, but a later scene convinces us. Elms describes taking his mum to a Japanese restaurant ‘when I was doing all right, making a few bob, living in a flat in Bloomsbury and pretending I’d had a sophisticated palette all along’. It’s  his ‘Joe Gargery moment’, one that ‘turned him into Pip’. And throughout ‘London Made Us’ there is a sense of Robert Elms as Pip, ‘educated beyond his station’, torn between the Forge of Burnt Oak and cutting-edge of 80’s London. Sometimes you even get a sense of Elms as the mature narrator of ‘Great Expectations’ casting a guilt-ridden glance back at his errant youthful behaviour. He refers to his fondness for ‘silly haircuts’ and the ‘preposterous poetry’ with which he introduced Spandau Ballet at one of their first gigs, confessing that ‘all I wanted was to be a face about town’.

Elms’s love for his city is profound. Equally apparent is his love for language. He’s unable to resist the rhythmic trick, the wise-guy gag, the lure of alliteration or the look-at-me  flourish. Hence – ‘our harshly polyglot peripherique’, ‘this all-pervading, all-providing, all-devouring behemoth of a birthright’, ‘this bright and shiny (or maybe shite and briny) twenty-first century Babylon’,‘ a rollicking redoubt of totters and tearaways’. But far from being a fault, having such a loquacious guide makes the ride in the back of his cab all the more enjoyable. As Chas and Dave would say, he sure can rabbit.

Robert Elms knows and loves London. ‘London Made Us’ is a cab-ride through his life and times but it is above all a tour of the city, an intelligent reflection on its ever-changing nature, its refusal to stay as we remember it. It’s also about loss, something with which, as a fellow QPR fan, Robert Elms is very familiar. There is so much here that strikes a chord. Not least the claim that the greatest ever London song is The Faces’ ‘Debris’.