London's loss, Caracas' gain

Ditched by Londoners, it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from Ken's years of experienc

With his successor doing his bit for Anglo-Chinese relations with his flag-waving "ping pong's coming home" performance in Beijing last weekend, it's nice to see Ken Livingstone back in work this week as a consultant to his old friend Hugo Chavez. London, it seems, is just not big enough for these larger than life political characters.

Apparently Livingstone's brief is to get Caracas moving. Having visited the Venezuelan capital a couple of times myself, I can say that as a regular Tube traveller Ken should at least find the underground system to his satisfaction. Speedy and reliable, cheap and clean, the Caracas metro is among the best in the world; its air conditioned platforms just about the only place in the city you can find any peace and quiet. It was built by the French, of course.

Above ground though, it's a different story. Traffic gridlock, brash unsightly skyscrapers and a headache-inducing haze are the inevitable consequences of a society in which oil is cheaper than water and the automobile has ruled unchecked for decades. Much of the centre of the city was hollowed out to make way for US-style freeways and flyovers – now crumbling – during the last oil boom of the 1970s. Trying to ban Chelsea tractors was one thing; attempting to introduce a congestion zone in Caracas would be like trying to persuade lions of the merits of vegetarianism.

Despite its numerous other achievements, Chavista socialism meanwhile has so far made little progress towards getting the majority of residences out of the barrios that suffocate the city on all sides and into proper housing (though Ken, in one of his redder moments, will surely have privately enjoyed the decision a couple of years ago by the mayor of Caracas to appropriate a couple of private golf clubs to create additional living space). Caracas residents continue to endure levels of violent crime that make South London's knife crisis look like an episode of Trumpton.

All of which means that Ken has his work cut out - but it's nice to know that someone stands to benefit from all those years of experience at the GLC and in City Hall. It's a wonder he still has time for his own radio show. Let's hope he hasn't been taking broadcasting tips from Chavez, whose own radio and TV broadcasts have been known to run into hours and days...

An unusually tanned and relaxed Ben returns from his summer holidays - if those are the right words to describe Scotland in August - next week.

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.