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What Of London's 'Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics,' Post-'Brexit'?

A juggler performs during an audition for a busking spot in the North Hall at Covent Garden Market.
A juggler performs during an audition for a busking spot in the North Hall at Covent Garden Market.

One of the many pleasures of London is to hear so many languages and accents of the world, often on a single street.

Step down into any Tube station, and you can see travel directions printed in scores of those tongues. Not only Bengali, Urdu, Tamil and Arabic, which have become as common on signs in London as Spanish in many U.S. cities, but French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and other languages of the European Union.

Take just a short ride from Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square, and you'll see people with pink hair who wear black leather pants and nose rings, white-maned men and women in Saville Row suits, or kurtas and hijabs. Just a walk through the streets makes London feel like the world capital it is.

It's "almost like a gigantic frog!" says Mehmet Murat Ildan, the Turkish writer. "With its long tongue it draws curious insects from all over the world inside itself."

Or, as Oscar Wilde put it: "Oh, I love London! It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be."

To many people, London embodies what it is to be a true city of the world. A place for the powerful, but also the vulnerable; those who can strike it rich, and those who struggle and strive; wits, wise people, and dashing kooks; monarchs and revolutionaries.

Mahatma Gandhi despised British rule in India. But he came to the place he called "the land of philosophers and poets, the very centre of civilization," to learn how to be a lawyer in London, and the strategies by which he would begin to undo the British Empire with some of its own principles.

Over the past half-century, the Union Jack, which once flew over the far-flung outposts of an empire assembled by force and cunning, has become a symbol of another kind of strength: the "soft power" of ideas and culture.

There are few spots on the planet where you won't hear a song by the Beatles or Adele. British dramas, from Shakespeare to EastEnders to Downton Abbey, are popular from Australia to India to China. Children all over the globe grow up with Paddington, Pooh and Thomas the Tank Engine. And British comedy — quirky, satiric, and self-directed — still has the charm and power to make all kinds of people laugh.

But this week's vote may make you wonder if London is a global city in a time when people have become suspicious of globalism.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.