London: Destruction & Reinvention
I try to be upbeat about the Mayor’s transformation of London into an Oligarch Moneypit, but sometimes it’s hard. After more cyclists were maimed on London roads last week, the half-hearted new cycle lanes that peter out after a few metres, forcing riders into traffic, feel symptomatic of what happens when government planners step in to change life here.
Where I live, part of Caledonian Road (where Bryant & May work) has suddenly become two-way after years of being one-way. Unfortunately no-one has realised that the two-way bit doesn’t lead anywhere, so no vehicles use it. Nearby, the horrific bottleneck where half a dozen cyclists died has been changed again, to no avail; the street is so clogged that drivers are more concerned about not mowing down pedestrians than watching for bikes. So on this insanely crowded corner, one of the busiest in the city, they’ve allowed a McDonalds and a line of Jesus chuggers to operate, swelling crowds even more.
Meanwhile, private enterprise has saved one neighbourhood oddity; London’s only inland lighthouse, said to have been created in the mid-19th century to advertise an oyster house, is being restored after falling into disrepair.
And as one rarity nears restoration, down near Leicester Square the destruction continues. The latest victim is the Victorian Hand & Racquet pub, where I used to drink with my Dad, now boarded up and awaiting an unannounced fate.
Incredibly, the pace of change seems to be getting even faster. London has always been in flux, but change was largely driven from within. Now it is due to international market forces. Mercifully, the city no longer makes its money from children working in factories, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned green. Now it’s the impossible-to-comprehend world of money-moving. Here’s an edited excerpt from Stephen Moss’s excellent Guardian piece, in which he interviews anonymous ‘Justin’ and tries to understand who does what in London:
‘The attraction of London for financiers is that it spans time zones and acts as a bridge between the US and the rest of the world – hence the 17-hour day. Seeking an insight into the City’s problems is a thankless task. The Bank of England refuses to grant me an interview, thrives on opacity; and City insiders are paranoid about talking to the media.
‘The City is the equivalent of Venice in the middle ages,’ Justin tells me. ‘It’s a massive international melting pot that drives London and the rest of the country.’ Justin startles me by extending his Venetian analogy. If the City is Venice, he says, then the rest of the UK is Mestre – the boring bit on the other side of the causeway that no one visits. “The banks are here, but almost everything they do is not here,” he says. “I’ve got no clients in this country. I’ve got clients in Russia, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland. The City doesn’t service London and the UK; it starts off in India and goes all the way to Ireland, then up to Russia and down to Cape Town.’ The City exists to serve ‘Emea’, a land known only to bankers: Europe, the Middle East and Africa.’
It seems to me that the result of being driven by outside money movement is that it’s now impossible to tell why anything at all happens here. Why does a presumably listed pub vanish? Why is an unlovely lighthouse getting rebuilt? Is it simply all down to chance now?
For a city so well-connected, hard information is scarce. We are now at the mercy of random forces. We can only grab London’s coattails now and hang on.