London Attitude: Why So Laid Back?
About four years ago, a British TV channel held one of those pointless debates to decide something unquantifiable. In this case it was; ‘Which is the cooler city, New York or London?’
Fighting in the NYC corner was a born New Yorker, a very smartly turned-out bright-eyed Time Out journalist with neatly side parted hair. On the London side was a scruffbag hack for a style magazine that has probably since gone bust.
The New Yorker outlined, in carefully reasoned and thought-through prose, why he felt that New York was the coolest city in the world. He broke this down into arts & entertainment, restaurants, parks, shopping and so on, building his argument as if at a debating society.
Then it was the turn of the London scruff. He scratched himself, looked blankly at the earnest young New Yorker and couldn’t be bothered to answer him before virtually falling asleep live on TV. He’d been up all night. It was, by anyone’s measurement, game, set and match to London.
Times have changed since then. Although the ‘We don’t try harder’ approach is still with us, we’re out to make money now, and Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds might as well be on Mars as our massive southern supercity, aided and abetted by its politicians, just keeps getting richer. A garden-bridge is being planned to beat the one in NYC, but it shouldn’t be built while the whole of East London has no bridges at all and the southern half of the city is ignored in favour of attracting even more money to the centre. Homeless figures have risen by a fifth this year alone, but hey, it’ll sort itself out.
London doesn’t do controlled environments well so we end up with a West End that looks like a rubbish dump of junk-food outlets, bottlenecked pavements and traffic chaos. I haven’t been back to NYC in an age, but the last time I saw Times Square it wasn’t the crazy place I feared and loved in equal measure, it looked like a gameshow. It’s soulless, but New York understands that order is good for the centre of a city.
London is without order. It means well but almost every project runs out of steam – plans to cut our vehicular footprint have seemingly been wiped away by our Mayor. A grand idea to remove railings and demarcations between traffic and pedestrians (which works well in many European cities) simply disappeared. We’re back to the Tory Laissez-Faire policies of the late Victorian age.
However, London excels at chaotic unplanned merriment. Once the Kensington roof gardens were the place to be seen – now everyone heads to the unkempt beer-strewn greenery on the rooftops of the South Bank. Once Camden was cool – now the deranged mess of Shoreditch takes the crown. The messier it is, the more Londoners like it. We’re rowdy party guests and letting off steam is part of the London attitude. For a major city we’re ridiculously laid back. If you get drunk and cheek the police there’s a good chance they’ll laugh it off.
But in a city of 8.2m there are always threats. Bengali teens are radicalising in the East End, but there’s no visible fightback because the work is being done (we hope and pray) at an educational level, so we ignore what’s happening. Protest is in our DNA, and we’re meant to cause trouble when our civil liberties are threatened, but lately there’s been silence. Although the Mayor is helping to change that by buying water cannons.
To some extent, London has become a victim of its own popularity. England is a spectacularly beautiful country but if tourists see it at all (and it’s only small) they go to Edinburgh via York, rarely to Wales or Devon or East Anglia or to any coastal region. Employment is full so we don’t innovate. In Spain, where I spend a lot of time working, unemployment is high and the young are elaborately, bravely creative about finding ways to work in a fulfilling manner.
Perhaps we’re just not hungry enough to try anymore.