London in the Real World

Roger Burton West
17 September 2010

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

This file is intended for role-playing game masters who wish to set adventures in London (the one in the UK, not Ontario). The author hopes to help GMs to avoid errors and infelicities that might not be obvious to someone who hasn't been there.

1.1. Acknowledgements:

David Devereux and Kevin Patton contributed significant amounts of material to this guide.

2. Geography

London is two cities in one, but they merged so long ago that it's no longer very noticeable. The eastern half of the centre is the old City of London (which is often still referred to as such); the western half is the old City of Westminster (which is rarely known by that name any more).

Maps are generally available on the web. Google Maps is usually a good starting point, and aerial photos are particularly valuable; Multimap also has side-looking photos in some areas, which are more convenient than top-down for getting the feel of an area. An Underground map (in a state of constant flux, but at the time of writing look for "Getting Around", "Maps", "Tube") is indispensable as a guide to transport routes. A paper map may be hard to obtain outside the UK, but is a worthwhile investment if games are not run in front of a computer screen.

The "centre" can be variously defined; for this file I'm considering it as the Circle Line and all points within it, which is a reasonable approximation for the late 20th and early 21st century.

London straddles the River Thames, which runs from west to east; geographically it's about 2/3 on the north side. Most of the traditional central area is on the north, though, and living "south of the river" has historically been a second-best option.

For purposes of this document, "London" is the area bounded by the M25 motorway (divided road, three or four lanes each way, 70mph limit, prone to traffic jams). At the present time there are still significant areas of parkland within the M25. Some parts of "Greater London" lie outside this area.

2.1. City of London

London proper is the City of London (or just "the City"); this forms the eastern half of the central area, and is also known as the "Square Mile". It is primarily a financial centre; there are also expensive shops, pubs and restaurants. (As with anywhere in London, though, it's possible to find good cheap food; it just helps to be a local or to spend quite a bit of time searching.) Very few people live here; the ones who can afford the price of flats would mostly rather have a bigger house somewhere else. Those who do live here almost always do it because they work here. Buildings are mostly at least five stories tall (except for the significant number of old churches), and almost exclusively offices. Shops are on the ground floor of buildings, facing the street. There are a few semi-public gardens, usually only accessible by subscription.

There are some poorer areas in the northern part of this section - Hoxton, parts of Shoreditch, and so on.

2.2. City of Westminster

The southern part of the City of Westminster contains the Houses of Parliament. The northern part consists mostly of the West End, the main high-priced shopping area of London, including Leicester Square (first-run cinemas), Chinatown (mostly cheap-and-cheerful dining, but if you want to spend lots of money you can, particularly in the pubs), Oxford Street (major department stores and record shops), and Tottenham Court Road (electronics). Towards the northern limit is Bloomsbury, which is mostly occupied by buildings associated with the University of London (both colleges and halls of residence) - though it's not a distinct campus as is found in some cities. To the south-west is Buckingham Palace.

All of this area is prime tourist country, and is therefore avoided by most locals during tourist season (primarily July-August, with an odd spike in March) if they have any choice in the matter. Food and drink is generally available, though only slightly less expensive than in the City and much more tourist-orientated. There are a few very good (and very expensive) restaurants, but they don't advertise.

It's possible to live here, but only if you have quite a lot of money or are a student in halls of residence.

2.3. Suburbs: North

North London is a patchwork of neighbourhoods, some very expensive (e.g. Hampstead, Golders Green) and others much poorer (e.g. Kilburn, Neasden). Access to the Underground is generally quite easy.

2.4. Suburbs: East

East London (aka the East End) is historically a poor area; that's changed slightly with the advent of new construction in Docklands.

2.4.1. Docklands

If you want a blueprint for the corporate suburb of the future, this is it. Tall featureless buildings; heavy-looking but ineffectual security; lots of video cameras; and streets that nobody ever walks along, because they go straight from their flats to their cars and drive to work. No shops, except for really expensive ones and the very occasional supermarket; but lots of high-priced cinemas, bowling alleys, or whatever the latest entertainment fad may happen to be. There are both office and residential areas, but they tend to be separated rather than mixed together. Flats and houses may have a view of the river, or at least the docks (no longer in commercial use); this puts the price up somewhat.

The new developments on the Isle of Dogs are juxtaposed against some of the poorest parts of London. Surprisingly enough, there's a lot of property crime.

Connected to the City of London by the DLR.

2.5. Suburbs: South

The Underground is much less present south of the river; public transport is more likely to be by bus or commuter rail.

2.6. Suburbs: West

The inner parts of west London are traditionally the most expensive area in London, though in recent years the north has been taking over. The area around Richmond Park is still in the overall lead, though.

3. History

4. Transport

4.1. Foot

4.2. Railways

4.2.1. Underground

Also known by some as the Tube.

Trains generally run every 3-7 minutes, and take 1-2 minutes between stations.

Mostly stops running by 11pm-midnight (earlier on Sundays), though some routes have trains until 1am.

At present, all trains are operated solely by the driver, though until the 1990s some lines also had a guard at the back of the train.

4.2.2. Docklands Light Railway

Apart from the terminals in the City and the Thames crossing by Island Gardens, the DLR is elevated about 30 feet from street level. The standard station layout is a pair of tracks surrounded by platforms.

The trains run automatically, though a "train captain" is put aboard each one to serve as a ticket checker and point of contact. Generally this person also operates as a guard (choosing when to close the doors), though in practice this job is entirely superfluous.

Manual controls to the trains are available, but are kept locked away from public view.

4.2.3. National Rail Services

These are the parts that used to be run by British Rail, when British Rail still existed. Mostly commuter lines south of the river, but with one significant route ("Thameslink") north through the City and a few others in various places; and trains to other parts of the UK from the main-line terminals.

After about 2000, all suburban trains have automatic doors and no openable windows, with only limited air-flow.

4.3. Buses

Reasonably plentiful and cheaper, though slower, than the Underground. Buses do not have the stigma often associated with them in America; when one's taking a route that crosses Underground lines rather than lying along them, it's the standard way to travel. Most central routes still use double-deckers, though the Routemasters (with open platform at the back) are increasingly rare; others, and more outlying routes, use single-deckers. Generally a given service will run once per 10-15 minutes, more often during rush hours.

Buses mostly stop running at about 11pm-midnight; night buses (which follow different routes, generally centre-to-suburbs rather than suburb-to-suburb) take over after that, running less often (typically at 20 to 60 minute intervals). These have something of a reputation for "interesting" passengers (mostly because they're likely to be quite drunk).

4.4. Taxis

"South of the river, at this time of night?"

The famous "black cabs", though they now come in various models and aren't even always black. Fixed tariff based on time and distance. The driver may legally refuse journeys longer than 6 miles (20 if Heathrow airport is involved), but otherwise is required to accept all fares. (Not that this always happens. A driver may well refuse a fare which will take him away from anywhere he's likely to pick up another passenger, even though this is technically not allowed; hence the quote above.) Taxi drivers are licenced, and must pass an exam on the geography of London ("the knowledge").

A London taxi will be able to seat five friendly people and a decent quantity of luggage. Taxis can be hailed in the street (if the "for hire" light is on); various companies also offer telephone services. Taxi-sharing is extremely rare, and mostly only happens from airports.

Taxis are the second most expensive way of getting around London. (The most expensive is the tricycle-taxi, which is primarily a tourist gimmick in the West End.)

4.5. Minicabs

The cheaper equivalent of taxis. These are private cars rather than specialised vehicles; they may not legally be hailed in the street, but must be booked by telephone. In practice, they tend to hang around railway stations and large venues. When the destination is given, the driver will specify a fare, which the passenger can take or leave; this will be significantly cheaper than what a taxi would charge.

Minicab drivers in London did not require any form of licence until 1998, which gives rise to two main sorts of horror story: the driver who has no idea of where (well-known London location) is, and the driver who mugs, rapes and/or murders his passengers. The former was rare but has happened to people known by the author of this file; the latter was something for tabloid paranoia rather than a significant threat.

4.6. Private cars

It's still possible to get around London by car, but there are significant barriers to this:

4.7. Air

Depending on how you count them, there are anywhere between two and seven "London" airports (sometimes more - Southend, out to the east on the Thames estuary, has been referred to as "London Southend Airport").

The airspace around London is very congested; all aircraft are required to be in contact with a ground controller. (This is a slight simplification, but close enough for most purposes.)

In increasing order of distance from the centre:

4.7.1. Westland Heliport

Used for people arriving by helicopter who don't have a private rooftop available (which are quite rare - most office buildings weren't constructed with helicopters in mind). Shuttle service to Heathrow airport, which takes a few minutes and costs a lot.

4.7.2. London City

In Docklands, not the City. Mostly for business travellers; flights to other parts of the UK and to Europe. Very small (and thus fast to move through); corporate jets, turboprop planes, and the BAe146/AvroRJ series are what you'll see here. No private flying, no helicopters; there is lots of housing nearby, so nothing that can't lose an engine and keep flying is allowed except in special circumstances (such as the Open Day air show each year). 15-20 minutes by DLR from the City.

4.7.3. Heathrow

One of the world's largest airports. The main international and domestic departure point. 15 minutes by expensive rail from Paddington (West End), 45 minutes by cheaper Underground from almost any part of central London. Mixed tourist and business travel. High landing fees, so mostly used by large aircraft.

4.7.4. Biggin Hill

The local council has prevented this from being used for commercial flights, and so it's not generally considered when people think of "London airports", but private and business flights still take off from here. About half an hour or 45 minutes by train from central London, still inside the M25. Not much in the way of passenger facilities.

4.7.5. Gatwick

Smaller than Heathrow but still the second-largest London airport; south of London, outside the M25. Half an hour by train from the centre. Mostly tourist travel, mostly large aircraft.

4.7.6. Stansted

Smaller again, mostly for tourists but with some business travel. 45 minutes by train, north-east of London outside the M25. Notable for having a dedicated hijack stand, so that negotiations can continue without shutting down the entire airport. (Probably less relevant than it used to be before 2001.) Mostly large aircraft.

4.7.7. Luton

Only a London airport by extremes of courtesy; north of London. Small and lightly used. Smaller aircraft.

4.7.8. Other airfields

There are significant numbers of smaller airfields around the outskirts of London (mostly outside the M25), which are used for general aviation and in some cases business travel. Many of these are former RAF bases from the Second World War.

5. Law and Police

5.1. Metropolitan Police

This force covers all of London apart from the City (see below). Like all British policemen, officers of the Met are unarmed during their normal duties; firearms specialists are available on short notice should they be required.

5.2. City of London Police

This force covers only the City of London. Its officers are renowned mainly for their lack of a sense of humour (this was true even before a few scattered terrorist incidents could have been considered to give them an excuse).

5.3. British Transport Police

The British Transport Police cover all public transport - in practice, they're mostly seen on the Underground and suburban railways. They rarely have to deal with serious offences; it's mostly fare evasion, some disorderly behaviour, and only rarely anything else (though they do have the happy job of clearing up and investigating when someone's gone under a train). For detective work and other investigation, they'll usually call in the Met.

5.3.1. PCSOs

Police Community Support Officers were brought in in 2002; they are uniformed but non-warranted officers employed by one of the above police forces. Generally they are people who were unable to make the grade as regular police officers; their reputation is very poor both with the police and with the public. They have no powers of arrest beyond those given to the general public, but many of them are unaware of this or hope that their victims will be.

5.4. Private security guards

In theory, all private security guards and firms are licenced by the Security Industry Authority (from 2003); before this date (and to a limited extent afterwards too), much private security is conducted on a more informal basis, with minimal spending, high staff turnover and little or no training.

5.5. Law

6. Lifestyle

6.1. Pubs

The British public house is an institution that has survived everything politicians and businessmen have tried to do to it. A typical pub consists of one or more rooms, each with its own bar. Table service of alcohol is very rare, and tipping does not take place (though asking the barman to "have one for yourself" does still happen). Food will often be available, though usually only at peak lunch and dinner times (there may be sandwiches or other cold food outside these hours, and almost always salty snacks for sale); while a few pubs have separate restaurant sections, most will bring hot food to a table in the main area.

A typical pub will have loud music, and one or more television screens showing either music videos or sports (depending on the pub and its expected clientele). For major sporting events, the commentary track will be switched to the loudspeakers; pubs without loud noise of some sort are quite rare.

Some newer pubs have few tables and chairs, in the expectation that people will be happy to drink while standing (and will drink more quickly). These tend to be aimed at relatively young people.

Almost all pubs will sell generic lager by the pint, wine by the glass or bottle (in fact, 125ml, 175ml, and multiples thereof), and spirits by the measure (25ml or 35ml; some must be served in these measures, others usually are for convenience). A few still offer real ale as well.

Because of the requirement that munitions workers in the First World War be sober when turning up for work, pubs were allowed to open only from 11am to 11pm (noon-10.30pm on Sundays) until 2003. Licencing changes in that year led to many pubs staying open until 2-3am.

Many pubs' hours are still shorter; in the City, for example, it's rare to find anywhere open at a weekend. Even before 2003, a very few pubs operated outside standard hours by special exemption; the pubs near Smithfield Market, a wholesale meat market on the western edge of the City, were open until 6am for the market porters (but available to the public too).

6.2. Clubs

6.3. Cinemas

6.4. Street Activity

6.4.1. "Unofficial" street people

It is important to note that not everyone involved in street activity (begging, clipping, dealing, drinking, drug taking, prostitution, skanking, etc) are homeless. Many are housed, albeit inadequately, and some are in temporary accommodation (hostels, B&Bs, etc.).

Although there is no such thing as an "average" street person, it may be said that people take to life on the streets when they run out of options. It's not their individual problems that directly result in their fate, but a lack of the support networks upon which people in mainstream society rely in times of crisis.

Many street people come from an institutionalised background (care homes, prison, the Armed Forces) and a large number may be classified as having multiple, or complex, needs. This is often the result of being diagnosed with a psychotic disorder (such disorders usually include some form of delusional mindset) and being prescribed one of the many neuroleptic (or anti-psychotic) drugs. These drugs all have unpleasant, and sometimes damaging, side-effects; and a lot of people resist taking them - choosing, instead, to self-medicate with alcohol or narcotics (which also reduce neural activity). The result is that they have a delusional mind set, which may include visual and auditory hallucinations, and they are also suffering from the effects of prolonged consumption of alcohol or narcotics.

(Please note that it is incredibly unlikely that an ordinary member of the public might be attacked by a street person. Most violence occurs between people who know each other intimately. Generally, the closer the relationship, the higher the risk of violence. The highest incidence of stranger-violence (violence perpetrated by someone unknown to the victim) occurs at clubs, pubs, and sporting events. Most street violence happens as a result of extortion or rivalry between gangs. This, of course, raises the question as to why street people have been targeted by Compulsory Treatment Orders, and a whole raft of anti-social behaviour legislation.)

6.4.2. "Official" street people

In addition to the people involved in, increasingly criminalized, street activity, there is a growing number of "professional" street people; police, outreach teams, etc. Many of these teams are multi-disciplinary but, in general terms, their functions may be designated as enforcement or support. Enforcement

Police - already covered, but note that Police training has been reduced from the 1990s onwards.

Community Safety Officers (CSOs) - Uniformed quasi-police with 2 weeks training (Less than many security guards). These people are paid about the same as hotel staff. They have the same powers as any other member of the public.

Street Wardens - Employed by the local authority, these people are often former police officers or ex-services. They act as professional witnesses and can enforce by-laws. Many Street Wardens have had unhappy encounters with the law in the past. Support

Soup Runs - Hare Krishna, and other religious, operate regular soup runs, providing hot food and social contact to anyone who wants it. They are increasingly being harassed by police and CSOs (who see their activities as a honey pot for street people and their attendant dealers, fences and money- lenders).

Jesus Army - These guys patrol in mini-buses, picking up street people and taking them to their "Battle Centre", where they are inducted to the organisation through waking vigils, group discussions, and one-to-one sessions. These inductions also include a "de-toxing" fast.

Assertive Outreach - Teams of Community Psychiatric Nurses (CPNs), occasionally Registered Mental Health Nurses (RMNs), target homeless people with "a severe and enduring mental health problem". The vast majority of these teams will not work with people who have multiple needs (see above). Similarly, they will not work with anyone diagnosed with a Personality Disorder. Their objective is to provide treatment (medication) or respite (hospitalisation). Each team is supervised by an Approved Social Worker (ASW) who can "section" a person under the Mental Health Act.

Contact Assessment Teams (CAT) - Employed by voluntary organisations franchised by the Homelessness Directorate, these two-person teams are mostly qualified, but inexperienced, social workers. Their job is to engage with street people (they carry cigarettes for this purpose), perform a Needs Assessment, and refer them to a hostel, if necessary. The vast majority of "Direct Access" hostels can now only be accessed by the local CAT (who must "verify" that a person is homeless, witnessing them sleeping on the streets, 3 times before opening a case). CAT workers do not go into abandoned buildings, parks, bin areas, or boiler rooms, where many street people choose to sleep. This excludes a lot of long-term rough sleepers from their services.

Street Services Team (SST) - A sort of CAT-Plus employed by voluntary and private sector organisations contracted by the local authority, these two- person teams often consist of re-treaded CAT workers and have a similar, if broader remit. In addition to finding hostel spaces, they also refer to day centres and specialist alcohol and drug services. Unlike CATs, SSTs work closely with the police and Street Wardens, often carrying out joint patrols of "hotspots". Their work is controversial, straddling enforcement and support, targeting beggars, shop-lifters, drug-users, street-drinkers, etc. in addition to the traditional rough sleepers targeted by CATs. They do, however, follow the same verification protocol.

Paramedics - Sometimes called upon to deal with a street person who has a medical emergency, they are generally unsympathetic towards street people, perceiving them as recidivists suffering from self-inflicted conditions.

It is a well-recorded phenomenon that, as stress increases, the ability to empathise decreases. Often overstretched and inadequately supported, these professionals often suffer from sympathy fatigue.

7. Glossary

Flat = accommodation, rented or bought, that's all on one level within a larger building. Quite often there's a common outside door - good for security, but bad for receiving post reliably.