Two Worlds, One City
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.
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.
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.