Changing London 3
The former prime minister of Qatar, whose family owns a chunk of the grotesque bullet-proof ‘One Hyde Park’ apartment complex, and Harrods (which they’re welcome to) said he would retire to London rather than his homeland. For some, his decision is symbolic. London has become a playground for foreign fortunes – a land where you can spend vast amounts with discretion. What goes on in London stays in London.
Hence London’s current reputation as ‘Richistan’, the go-to location for oligarchs and dictators looking to bury their loot. It is no coincidence that Colonel Gadaffi chose to keep £40 billion of his assets tucked away here. At the consumer end, Chinese shoppers now account for 33% of all luxury goods sales in Britain, which encourages new high-end outlets to open daily. It’s a new world order, and I think rather an ugly one, because I don’t believe in trickle-down economics. I believe in unconditionally helping the people who are down to get up.
Here’s an example of how it’s meant to change urban life. The Google-isation of my local neighbourhood is occurring, as the new Google HQ gets ready to open a block away from me. It will transform the area in terms of business, But in terms of ordinary working lives it will make no difference, because Google and the other buildings surrounding it have been given their own new post-code – NC1 (North Central One), which acts as a virtual wall around the place, keeping the privileged in and the undesirables out. One hundred yards from the building are boarded-up shops and a run-down council estate where nothing is changing at all.
Meanwhile, a Chinese billionaire is planning to recreate the Crystal Palace – why on earth would he want to do that? It was built with a distinct purpose – to display the wealth and talent gathered from the corners of the Victorian empire, not to house an Abercrombie & Fitch. But it’s likely to be given the green light to ‘regenerate’ the area. I fail to see how more high-end retail outlets regenerate anything, if you don’t have the money to shop in them.
Perhaps I’m missing something in all of this. I’m moving in the wrong circles (I am the world’s worst networker. Most creatives are). Publicists are famous for holding ‘talkers’. These are events where they invite people who exist at the centre of a Venn diagram, who pass on news from one group to another. The three or four circles in which they run usually include media and money, plus a more specialised area, so a dream ‘talker’ would be, say, Tracy Emin, the rich media-friendly artist who can’t shut up. But who will the talkers cater to now? Who is the typical clued-up Londoner at the centre of things? Someone who buys a lot of clothes and eats out every night, at a guess.
If a city is defined not by its architecture but by its hopes and dreams and its people – then what is London becoming? There are still dreamers, of course – as the determination to build a green bridge across the Thames attests. But for every good idea there are a hundred blank glass boxes pushing their way around the planning rules. I long for a peep into the future I will not see, to know wether London has rediscovered its scale or entire lost its humanity to corporations.