Two Worlds, One City

London

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As I’m about to start a new Bryant & May novel (for 2019!) I decided I needed to take an unjaded look at the city. The process is going to take a while, because I want to go beyond the obvious sights and sounds I’m used to.

Behind the complaints about the properties flogged off by the sinister Candy brothers, about the homes for deposed dictators, invisible millionaire gangsters and the reappearance of a truly Victorian wealth gap, a different London has been quietly emerging. And like Mr Bryant, I want to understand it.

A Timeline of Change

In my parents years, the dividing lines of class were phantom but firmly in place. During WWII there were lunchtime classical concerts in parks and museums to uphold morale, and the ‘improving’ spirit held. You were defined by what you read, not if you read. In galleries and concert halls there was a rigid class divide, just as there were first, second and third class railway carriages, ‘Saloon’ and ‘Public’ bars in pubs.

Multiple social explosions changed the London map. One came in 1966, when the baby boomers ascended to dominate London’s demographic groups. The suits of the Square Mile (and they were nearly all suits; women rarely held the reins of power) were dropped for coloured shirts, women got out of kitchens, lines started to shift.  1976 was London’s year of punk, a fashion movement started by a handful of rich kids that spread out into universal discontent – and sowed the seeds for Margaret Thatcher’s new capitalism. Mass movement and free trade returned multiculturalism to the capital. But to my mind one of the biggest changes arrived in 2008 with the worldwide economic crash sparked by America’s sub-prime mortgage scandal.

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Economic hardship created a short-term sales model aimed at new arrivals, and has started new divisions. One side of London caters to a new wave of rich young people, primarily from the emerging wealthy classes of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Tokyo, Singapore, New Delhi, Shanghai and Chongqing (a city of nearly 37 million people).

The other side has eschewed the old markers of wealth (owned homes, private education, cars, designer clothes) and created pop-ups, one-offs, independents, street food, street markets and a new kind of violence, all of which hark back to an earlier time. Typically this radical shift happened quietly and seemingly overnight.

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Two Worlds, One City

Which is how I came to try both worlds on the same day yesterday. In the morning I was sitting on a crate at Borough Market yesterday eating fish and chips with a thousand other people. Oysters and Guinness bars are back, scruff street-eating is in fine fettle, rooftop boozing, undercover markets with world cuisine, pop-up cinemas and theatres, bars and dancing, all messy, loud and crazy, all swinging. There’s not a designer shirt in sight; it’s all about ‘experience’ now, not looking flash.

Later, a trip to nighttime Knightsbridge reveals another world. Huge crowds of young Saudis gather in the street, chatting and playing Middle Eastern music as gold-plated Ferraris and million-pound quad bikes race around them. The epicentre is in the pedestrianised road beside Harrods, that emporium of crass conspicuous wealth that now, like Selfridge’s, caters solely to the Middle and Far East. These are the new Londoners, brash and flash. A passing lady said to me; ‘It’s because they have nowhere else to go’, which struck me as an inversion of the old working class problem. But there seemed to be no trouble here, and certainly no drinking, just socialising.

On the far side of London, in the parts of the East End tourists don’t visit, are the kids who didn’t get their parents’ cash, the impoverished Indians who currently have a penchant for throwing acid over each other’s faces in gang wars. Shopkeepers have been filmed happily selling sulphuric acid to children. The violence is internecine, although it occasionally involves someone from outside, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. One young man answered the front door and suffered life-changing burns in a horrific case of mistaken identity.

So the wheel spins and the city changes. Let’s see what the next few days bring.

 

8 comments on “Two Worlds, One City”

  1. Roger says:

    Selfridge’s doesn’t cater solely to the Middle and Far East.
    It’s got excellent free lavatories. unlike Harrod’s.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Roger notwithstanding, you’re providing a rather grim portrait. In Strange Tide you drew a young man trying to turn himself into a Londoner, but realising that he would always be somewhat outside the real Londoner’s circle. Does that still hold? Do these young Saudis, etc. even care about that, or are they so confident that acceptance means nothing to them?

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    So how much does it cost to spend a penny in Harrods’s?

    It’s not so much about fitting in with a city but the crowd you choose to join in the city. There are places and scenes I’ll never be apart of in my home town, but it’s a lace I feel comfortable in, even though it changes so much I some times feel I’m from a different world.

    Did you know one of the Candy brothers called one of their children Cayman, says it all really.

    Wayne.

  4. admin says:

    I didn’t mean it to be a grim portrait. In most ways it’s business as usual. ‘It’s the poor wot gets the blame’. The old ideas, ‘Knightsbridge is for toffs, the East End is for paupers’, seems reinforced. And I certainly had an interesting weekend of exploration (ending at the Tate Modern, then Fulham and finally next to the site of the burned-out Grenfell building).

  5. davem says:

    “Come with me, ladies and gentlemen who are in any wise weary of London: come with me: and those that tire at all of the world we know: for we have new worlds here.”

  6. Ian Luck says:

    For my money, the best free lavatories in London were those in the Oriental galleries of The British Museum. Under used and clean, and worth ‘holding it in’ for, when buying electronic gubbins on the Tottenham Court Road. I expect they’ve been altered and ruined now.

  7. Joel says:

    London hasn’t ever been ‘a city’ – the divisions are no longer papered over or pretended not to exist. We’re still a large collection of little villages, no longer just defined by geography but also by demography and outlook. Look at the way Clerkenwell and Shoreditch have changed. Also, Cripplegate, lost in the December 1940 bombing.

    These areas have changed, but their ghosts remain in side streets. Tall grim brick buildings with with ornate window frames, still in some sort of commercial multiple occupancy as before. Some of the older small businesses which began there linger as they are unable to afford to leave, even though their clienteles have long since migrated. A trawl through a Post Office Directory for 1939 or earlier is fascinating, especially for Cripplegate, once you know the street names to look up!

    I went to school at the corner of Old St and City Rd, amid an uncountable number of small premises which may not have changed then or since for over a century. Those cities are still there, just less visible, so their stories need a bit more excavating than usual.

  8. Jan says:

    That’s really interesting stuff Joel and I’ve found what you are saying here to be true.
    Businesses do get caught in a particular post code. As you say they can’t afford a move,although their immediate clientele has long gone.
    “The areas have changed, but their ghosts remain in the side,streets.”

    Nice – very nicely put.

    Here’s something to play with Chris.

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