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    • First-time visitors to London might expect to find it teeming with red buses, black cabs and bobbies on the beat, variously dotted around the Monopoly board, and where trips to Buckingham Palace and Big Ben should be followed by fish and chips and a nice cup of tea. In fact, these tourist icons live on in London, remaining as rare constants in a city that embraces progress and chases the Next Big Thing (though yes, Old Kent Road really is still on the lowest rung of the property ladder, and Mayfair the highest).

      Most Londoners are proud of their Britishness and the city’s 2,000-year heritage. The monarchy is ever popular (so long as it holds no power and continues to generate tabloid headlines). Its historical VIPs – Shakespeare, Dickens, Newton, Darwin, etc. – lend the city wisdom and influence, but it is its people on the ground past and present that affords London its individuality – the Dickensian waifs and strays, the eccentric pearly kings and queens, the East End gangsters, those punks, goths, mods and rockers, and a recent multi-ethnic influx of immigrants – Afro-Caribbeans, Indians, Africans, Asians, East Europeans, etc. With an area of 609 square miles, there’s room for all it seems – London is the EU’s most populous city, and like New York, is less of a melting-pot, more a mosaic of cultures free to retain their own identity. Where Christianity once dominated, London is now a pluralist society with huge communities of Hindus (the largest outside India), Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and a seemingly endless supply of Hare Krishna converts. London speaks over 300 languages, and out of a total of 12 million inhabitants in Greater London, its non-white population is the largest of any European city. London’s size and pace can overwhelm – it can seem unfriendly, insular and competitive, eye-contact is usually a no-no, and crime and grime are still issues. However, all over are village communities, from the quaint Englishness of Primrose Hill to the curry-loving enclaves of Brick Lane.

      London is a global city – i.e., along with New York, Tokyo and Paris – so go the textbooks – it has a direct effect on global affairs, culturally, politically and socio-economically. As you’d expect from a country that has the world’s fourth largest GDP, money is king in its capital. London consistently hits the top five of Most Expensive City charts. But – at last – the best can be bought – a new class of celebrity chefs is ensuring that London is no longer burning its food, the fruits of its artists and fashion designers are coveted world-over (and London is one of the world’s four fashion capitals), its music scene continues to rock the world with ever-evolving sounds from glitch to grime while modern design maintains an iconic skyline; a building boom for the Millennium added yet more attractions. Creativity sits easy within this corporate powerhouse as London thrives on the clash of opposites – the Establishment and the underground, tradition and experiment, the homegrown and the imported.

      London has always nurtured independence and idiosyncrasy and its liberal, progressive outlook makes for a modern, dynamic metropolis happy to adopt a new set of icons – namely, the London Eye, Chelski Football Club and chicken tikka masala (though perhaps that was more to do with our own erstwhile cooking talents). And with the 2012 Olympics looming, planet London swings on.