I feel great affinity with Robert Elms. This may be because I listen to him on BBC Radio London most days. It may be because we’re both the same age. It may be that both of us are at Loftus Road for most QPR home games. Or it may be a sense of shared roots.
So, plenty of connections. But also, it has to be said, plenty of differences. Robert Elms is a very sharp dresser; I’m not. He is very cool and very connected; I am neither. He is a Londoner born and bred; I may live there now (in Barnes, an area for which Elms can never disguise his contempt) but, after a Woking birth, my childhood and adolescence was spent in Surrey.
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; ‘I think 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, the only point of similarity is that we both hail from the same place (see http://www.bernardokeeffe.com/?p=819 )
My roots may be closer geographically to Weller, but I feel I know Robert Elms much better, and, after reading this hugely enjoyable, informative, revealing memoir, that is even more the case. When Elms writes of his childhood in Burnt Oak that ‘it was full of O’Keefes, Kellys and O’Neills.’ I almost think I could have been one of them. But I was in Weybridge at the time, and my O’Keeffes have two ‘f’s.
So London, for me, is not what it is for Elms. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t seduced by ‘London Made Us’. Reading it is very much like listening to the Robert Elms radio show – one moment you’re listening to a cockney geezer, the next you’re being spoken to by a sophisticated intellectual. Robert 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). And 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.
Social mobility and class lie at the book’s heart and I would be surprised if ‘Great Expectations’ is not 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 London.
Throughout there is a sense of Elms, like the mature narrator of ‘Great Expectations’, casting a guilt-ridden backwards glance at his errant youthful behaviour. It is, though, a little inconsistent. He may talk of his fondness for ‘silly haircuts’ and the ‘preposterous poetry’ with which he introduced Spandau Ballet at one of their first gigs, but he can also tell us that ‘all I wanted was to be a face about town’ or refer to himself as an ‘urban elitist’ with no accompanying ironic judgement.
Elms’s love for his city is profound. Equally apparent is his love for language. He’s a linguistic barrow-boy, hawking his verbal wares, foisting on us three phrases where one would do. 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’.
When it comes to London, though, Robert Elms knows his stuff and ‘London Made Us’ is a great read. His memories are personal and heartfelt, his knowledge hugely impressive. His love of the city is profound, and, as he takes you on a tour of his life and manor, he proves to be great company, even if you sometimes feel trapped in the back of his sherbet with your ears under assault.
‘London Made Us’ is about the city’s 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 ‘Debris’.