Changing London 2
Think of a city. Now hold the image and smash it into a thousand shards, so that each reflects a slightly different angle. That’s London, pretty much. Here, you see what look for. I think it was the Minister of Tourism who, when asked why so many people come here, notoriously replied; ‘For the sex.’ London is a magnet for the young and the very rich. It was always so.
But I often think I don’t know London at all. There are many Londons that are denied to me. Rich London, ethnic London, upper class London – these are all closed-off areas which are very hard to write about with any authority, because they are changing so fast. I’ve been to hindu temples and 300 year-old gentlemen’s club but you never really get inside these other worlds, and now they’re barricaded off from the rest of warp-speed London.
I find it hard to imagine what a tourist visiting for the first time sees. I look at places and recall that here stood a theatre, there stood a pub, that was where we used to hang out when we were really broke. What do they see?
Last night I went with friends to see ‘The 39 Steps’, a tiny fringe show that entered the Criterion for a six-week run and has ended up running for years, playing to houses of foreign tourists. And now I see the appeal; it’s so period-English (1935) that they can’t possibly get its ragbag of dated jokes, but that doesn’t matter – it’s peculiar and tatty and charming, and that’s enough for them to add it to their list of London things to do. It’s also on in Piccadilly Circus, so they can kill two sightseeing birds with one stone. And it’s a cash-cow for the company running it; all they have to do is send four actors onstage nightly and keep the lights on until it’s over to collect a ton of money.
This is the London of guardsmen and red telephone boxes, a London that no longer exists except in mythology. A world for tourists, but where do the residents go? In the Times this week, Caitlin Moran pointed out the surreal juxtaposition of having trendy favela-style street-food shacks selling £12 burgers in neighbourhoods where the houses now go for 1.5 million. This is not a sign of sophistication, but one of decadence and boredom. What’s next? How about Dachau, the diet cafe? Or The Josef Fritzl, dinner in a locked basement? Or possibly the Madeleine McAnn, where you spend ages searching for a waitress? Or the Food Bank, where you – oh, wait, they’ve got those for real in other parts of the country.
In the space of one short year property prices have quadrupled. London’s higher-learning population no longer conforms to the Student Grant stereotype. Now the average student is a wealthy East Asian paying a fortune for the privilege. Does it matter that they’ll take their newly acquired talents abroad when they graduate? Probably not, but I hoped we’d benefit from their arrival by learning from them, not just the other way around.
Student Grant isn’t the only stereotype to vanish. Virtually every other London ‘type’ has gone, from the cockney butcher to the garrulous cabbie. ‘Gentle Author’ is very good on the subject of London as a changing state of mind. He says:
‘London can be a grief-inducing city. Everyone loves the London they first knew…but as the years pass, the city of your formative experience changes, bearing less and less resemblance to the place you discovered. Your London is taken from you….eventually the London you first knew becomes more vivid than London you see before you and you become a stranger in the place you know best. This is what London can do to you.’
A huge number of books celebrate the diversity and quirkiness of London, but that quirkiness is disappearing, and there is much that we should castigate. The big corporations who have taken over the city give nothing back to communities beyond token PR-friendly nods to the neighbourhoods they have destroyed. London is less for all to be enjoyed now, and only for the connected, who are largely the high earners.
Networking in a specific area does not necessarily mean indulging your passion. I know of people who move in art, literature and opera who don’t have any interest in these fields – but they are interested in knowing the rich and powerful. There are no glitzy charity balls for secondhand book dealers. It seems that those who care most about the arts keep to themselves.
‘London begins with me and ends with me,’ said the anonymous teenager, and he’s right. The slice I saw as a child, and the one which remains most vivid, is a city of soot and bricks and empty foggy streets. The one in which connections were made by talking to your next-door neighbours. The one I see now is of invisible faces and neon-lit crowds. ‘How I long for the old view,’ said Seurat’s mother, but if the new is not hastily embraced we will be deemed old and past our prime, so we embrace the new for fear of no longer being invited to the party.
It seems there comes a time in everyone’s life when they stop wanting to upgrade their phone. Perhaps that’s also true of cities. We live in the city that suited us best. Most of my friends were born right here in the centre of town, but if you were an outsider, there’s a good chance that you only ever knew other outsiders. Now the outsiders are the most desirable Londoners, because their money brings them access to the social network.
Is it better or worse than before? It’s just different. I know people who are driven by an urgent need to shape public opinion. Me, I’m going to take a walk by the river and think private thoughts. I’m not nostalgic for that city of the past, but I’m still prepared to honour it. (Part 2 of 3)