As part of BBC Four’s superb London Collection, you can currently watch A Girl Comes to London on iPlayer. It’s a special report last broadcast on October 24, 1956, about young gels (to use the correct diction) moving to London in search of a new life away from their provincial homes. Some come to pursue dreams of showbusiness and glamma, the clipped narration explains. Others apparently come for a day trip, and get foolish ideas in their pretty pintuck curled heads about staying forever, and leaving their drab ol’ life behind. These less-than-solid plans inevitably land them in a boarding house full of other such dreamers, who have to trade hopes of the stage for secretarial work, and must submit to curfews set by gruesome boarding mistresses who bemoan the “deplorable hygiene” of the girls with a grim manner that suggests they probably ate the carbolic soap for breakfast. I can’t recommend it enough as a period piece, it’s very funny, and quite astonishing. (Thanks to Jude Rogers for the tip, via Twitter.)
“500 girls are moving to London each week,” the documentary explains, alluding to the post-war phenomenon. Tabloid reports about the worst fates befalling these dames were rife, and giving mums and dads back home the willies. So the state stepped in and provided a certain duty of care, offering lodgings and job centre appointments for these young women to set them on their feet in the city. They lost about 25% of them to elopements and the city’s darker trappings, one man says somewhat sinisterly, but hey, three-quarters is a fine survival rate!
It seems unimaginable now, the idea that you’d move to London in pursuit of some vague dream - as certainly still happens - and get sorted out by the state when your overly optimistic plans drift up shit creek. I’m not sure that this would be desirable at all, and I certainly don’t think surviving in a big city is any kind of entitlement. However, I’m very interested to find out when exactly this duty of care subsided, in what year young people were left to fend for themselves on arriving in the smoke.
It’s fascinating, too, that the documentary only focused on young women moving to the city; the assumption by implication is that young men were doing so on the promise of previously arranged jobs and financial prosperity; none of this fannying around in search of a dream. You see this focus reflected in many other forms of far more modern culture; how many films about young men moving to the big city can you name in comparison to those concerning wayward city-bound women?
One of the most obvious, immediate cases in point is Lena Dunham’s TV show “Girls.” I really loathed the programme when it started, though as we’ve reached the series finale (which I believe airs in America tonight), I’ve grown to enjoy it sincerely rather than in that cheek-shredding, hate-watching fashion. Whereas Sex and the City seemed geared towards making you identify with one of the four (THERE CAN ONLY BE FOUR) types of women that it presented, the thing I like about Girls is that it a) shows you how gross and voyeuristic women can be, which ties into b) whilst those parts ring true, the rest of the shoe leaves me wanting to un-identify with any of the characters as fast as humanly possible. If I pass a magazine shelf and see a cover-line asking “Are you a Hannah, Marnie, Jessa or Shoshanna?”, I’m gonna go HAM in WHSmiths. (Though kudos, Dunham, for having Jessa rail that she is “not the ladies” in episode two, thereby zinging anyone who loathes the idea of a show presenting archetypes with which to identify but watches it with some vain sense of superiority. (This was me 100%.))
The least identifiable part of the show for me personally is that these four young women are ingrained with the belief that they can only do what they want to do, or be who they think they are, within the confines of New York City. It’s a different town, but on July 19, 2010, I moved to London with a week to find somewhere to live before starting a job the following Monday. I moved because I had to to do the job I wanted to do, I had never wanted to live in the capital. On July 21, 2012, I am leaving and moving north, (in part) because I no longer need to be here, even though I am leaving the hallowed music industry behind, what a thought. Although their lack of forward planning makes my brain burn, from the point of view of a rationalist who likes concrete plans, there’s something almost enviable about the flightiness of the girls in the London documentary, convinced that living in a big city will change their lives. Good luck to anyone who’s doing the same today.