How to read London

View of London and Olympic venues from above

Already, even as you circle around over Essex, waiting to land at Heathrow, you are in a battlefield. This is the sky the Luftwaffe flew through on 7 September 1940 to bomb the Port of London.

That is the stretch of water you see as you pass over Canary Wharf, the two long bits that form City Airport, and the four short bits in the Isle of Dogs itself.

Heinkel over London

As your plane descends you can see what London is - a long river valley with hills to the north and south, colonised by the Romans, razed to the ground by Bouddica and her warriors, rebuilt around Aldwych and the Strand by Saxons, and then turned into an Empire City by that weird bunch of people who became the Brits. Norman knights, Saxon peasants, Celts, Jews, Africans, Huguenot weavers, Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians and - in the past 50 years, people from more or less everywhere else on earth.

You can only enjoy London by "reading" it. By this I mean reading its history as you pass through it. That loop of land that forms Canary Wharf, for example, was not only the first target of the Blitz - it was where the first modern ship was built, and where the first unskilled trade union was formed and it was Bob Diamond's HQ until a month ago.

That hump in the road just south of the Imperial War Museum is where the rebel citizens of London built an earthwork in 1642 when the Civil War started. Apprentices of each trade trooping out on allotted days to do the digging, the sea green ribbons and sprigs of rosemary in their hats denoting the extreme radical religious creed of the Levellers.

If you've come to London for the Olympics you'll be getting more than your fair share of the official pomp. But if you look beyond it you'll see what made London the city it is - plebeian, (usually) tolerant, multi-ethnic and global.

All Londoners have their favourite corner and mine is where Old Compton Street meets Frith Street in Soho. The guidebook will tell you that this is a gay area - it is, but it's also home to grumpy old Italian men, cracking their walnuts and sharing stories in the dark before dawn and to louche old Jazz enthusiasts in their fedoras, creeping into Ronnie Scott's, some of whom might be ministers in Her Majesty's government.

Just north of Bar Italia, you'll find the blue plaque to Mozart, who performed here. Round the corner, in the French pub, is where the Resistance met. On another street the house where William Hazlitt died, the two room apartment where Karl Marx managed to dally with his family housemaid and the water pump where John Snow first worked out that cholera was linked to infected water.

If you start here and wander you can end up in all kinds of small, quiet streets and a lot of them now have plaques or boards explaining how they fit into Britain's social and architectural history. Here's a rough outline.

Basically, once the monarchy was restored after the Cromwell era (1660), and early modernity took off, huge white stone buildings marked the rise of what would become the British empire - a naval, military commercial and banking complex headquartered here but with its operations more or less everywhere else in reach of a sailing ship.

So anything really old and with dark or yellow stone with gothic windows is probably medieval - anything big and white is probably from this period of Christopher Wren. Don't just think of Saint Paul's but check out the gloomy, heroic churches of William Hawksmoor, and read the equally gloomy novel by Hawksmoor fan and Londonist Peter Ackroyd.

And then of course you get the Georgian houses, which are dark brick and white paintwork, and then the jumble of everything else, including the Arts and Crafts movement, whose furniture is trendy now but which has left a legacy of tilework, brickwork and ornate urinals all over the plebeian buildings of London, shops, galleries, pubs.

Soho pub

Most "old" pubs are from the Edwardian era and do visit one (the "controlled drinking zone" signs they've put up in Central London for the games are a tribute to hope rather than reality). London has some spectacular pubs form the late Victorian and Edwardian era - read Gissing in one, or a bit of Oscar Wilde, or a speech by Gladstone.

While you're stumbling around having left the pub, you'll find places famous from songs - Berkeley Square - more or less a large traffic island now and swamped with car showrooms and restaurants for the fabulously rich.

But when the "nightingale sang" there first there was a war on. At the nearby Comedy Theatre, in Panton Street, in Spring 1940 an actress called Judy Campbell lost the script for a monologue she was supposed to read out and instead they thrust the sheet music for "Nightingale Sang" into her hands. She was more nervous about being bombed than singing, as were the audience.

If you whistle that tune, and imagine yourself in that audience, you'll realise it's not about what it says it's about. The people listening had no chance of dining at the Ritz with angels, but it resonated - like the whole of London does - with a kind of plebeian shoulder shrug. Things are chaotic but life goes on.

Two streets up is the Cafe de Paris where, a year later, Ken "Snakehips" Johnson and his band got blown up, a flower in his lapel, thus ending the first golden era of black British music.

And if you only know this city from films and TV dramas, be prepared to be shocked about how massively multi-ethnic it now is. It is an English city, a Somali city, a city full of French and Italian bankers, people from Eastern Europe, people from Lebanon and Iraq. And immigrants like me (from Lancashire, Lithuania and New York depending on how far back you want to go).

And for some reason it now has more tattoos per square inch of flesh than anywhere else on earth.

Brick Lane street

I think the authentic spirit of London is this constant, gritty absorption of people and cultures. I'm not saying it's easy. It wasn't easy in Shakespeare's day when the Huguenot (French) silk workers he lodged with were threatened with death, through graffiti and apprentice riots - on the express grounds that they were undercutting the rates of English craftsmen and were, as we now put it, "bogus" asylum seekers. (See some of their later houses in Fashion Street, Whitechapel, and their church, which became a Synagogue and is now a Mosque).

I'm not saying everybody here likes it either, or that they have to. But it is what it is, and irreversible.

This is a city where layer upon layer of new people, new ideas and new architecture are laid. It looks dirty and chaotic and it can be dirty and chaotic. But it's an organism now, after more than a thousand years of continuous absorption and improvisation.

What you need to navigate around it is not just a map but a map with the dimension of time attached. Just Google the name of the street you're on and the Wikipedia entry will give you a jump off point to do what I've done here - meander through the history and meaning of the streets and buildings you are in.

It's been a city of theatres, gangsters, political exiles, crooks and politicians (in close proximity), bankers, sailors, sex workers and young upstarts ever since it was a city.

So "read" it and enjoy.

This is LONDON and it is - as one of its great modern poets wrote, forever frozen now, smashing his guitar against the stage - CALLING!

Paul Mason, Economics editor, Newsnight Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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