Substitute for the one true city, by Janan Ganesh

Janan Ganesh is Chief US Political Commentator and associate editor for the FT. Previously political correspondent for The Economist, his books include the biography ‘George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor’.

My country of birth is not the same as my country of citizenship, which is not the same as my country of residence, which is not the same as my country of ancestry. I could substitute “country” for “continent” throughout that sentence. The perversity of London is that it is somehow, unambiguously, home.

And I mean all of it. Not just the blue-plaque core or Betjeman’s Metro-land but that world of interwar housing and parks called simply Recreation Ground in between: so unsung as to lack a name. It is Colindale and Croydon and Greenford and Ilford. In the most documented city since Rome, I am forced to call it Zone 4. I am a product of it, if also an unrecallable fugitive from it. It is easier to say what it isn’t: neither metropolis nor suburbia, neither fish nor fowl. But if you know, you know, and millions do.

As an expat, neither that ambiguous terrain nor the more vaunted quarters have been mine for years. I accept that the exiled Londoner is doomed to hunt for substitutes for the One True City. Everyone is entitled to their “other” home. New York (for the legal-financial bent) and Paris (for the proximity) are London’s obvious sisters. By dint of biography, Lagos and Singapore should be my reference points.

So why, for a fix of home, do I increasingly reach five and a half thousand miles west to the alien climes of southern California? If Los Angeles is London-ish, it is, I think, because it makes no sense. There is no structure to the layout. There is no architectural pattern. The ethnic mix is too protean to keep up with. The politics, such as it is, is a dog’s breakfast of competing authorities. A vast web of villages hangs together with no stronger an adhesive than spirit.

I walk a mile of deadening banality on Melrose and hit the miracle of design that is the Danziger Studio. It is as jarring as the turn from the laundrettes of Chalk Farm into chocolate-box Primrose Hill. And while London has had 2,000 years to accumulate these layers of complexity, as densely packed as sediment, LA has had 200.

Home is understood to mean the place you know best. What draws me to London and LA is precisely their unknowability. These are siblings who don’t quite know it. If either place starts to make sense, I will need a new home.