Cycling through London's "neo-Victorian boom"

..and realising it's time to leave.

“Neo-Victorian boom.” An expression that started to appear around a year ago is becoming something of a feature in writing about the city of London. The FT have gushed about “the world's leading city” as if it were an official contest or accolade, a recent issue of the Economist showed London at dusk, above a headline of “precarious brilliance". So long as the Olympics go off without too many G4S-style glitches, it’s hard to imagine them not strengthening the modern myth that London is developing for itself. Neo-Victorian boom. Apparently.

Look a little closer and all is not so well. In ever more bars, cafes and clubs you find increasingly stern advice to watch your belongings and use the bag hooks… thieves, it would seem, are operating in more and more areas of a city with the highest rate of wealth inequality in the developed world. Boris Johnson, newly returned as Mayor by only 15 per cent of the total electorate, was last month tending to self-promotion in New York, loudly repeating his old pledge that London will not be sterilised. As still more private sector developments lay claim to public space, each with a now-familiar range of prefabricated franchises, Johnson seems to have confused an opposition to sterilisation with affection for London’s stunning inequality.

In all this, there’s an awful lot of newspeak to cut through for those who want the truth. The now well-heeled borough of Hackney was recently celebrating a reduced rate of poverty amongst its residents. The town hall is quieter about the likelihood that this has been caused by a displacement of poor residents who can no longer afford to live in the borough. Across the city the boast of “recession proof” continues to linger like a bad smell. London property prices have indeed remained buoyant, but it’s a moot point that a 7 per cent climb in areas like Marylebone have been enough to bury the stutters in the likes of Dagenham and Romford, London’s emerging banlieu.

The Shard has become a newly popular metaphor for this gulf. London’s latest tallest building waits impatiently for its insides to be wired up, towering over the once low-profile south bank as it does so. Qatari-owned, the Shard has come to represent not only the brash arrogance of the financial sector, but also a tendency towards a city owned by those far away, people whose only concern for London is as an enduring cash cow. The most telling thing, in both name and design, is that the Shard seems remarkably comfortable in appearing outwardly mean. Cycle safety campaigners have highlighted the staggering rate of casualties caused by the Shard’s endless construction traffic, Simon Jenkins fumed that the Shard "has slashed the face of London for ever.'' Mercifully… “forever” is a long time, as is evident in the crumbling ruins of London Wall, the last Roman infrastructure project, completed in the second century to hem-in the city. The wall's ivy-strewn remains are a heart warming evidence that empires bigger than the Qataris have come and gone, together with their monuments... but still… it’s worrying when you have to find comfort through such a long view of history.

In short… and what I’ve been meaning to say all along… is that that it’s time for me to leave. I’ve always traveled by bicycle… around London, around the world, and a handful of times across Europe. It’s across Europe that I’m escaping this time, a ride of some 2500 miles to Istanbul, a route that I last took as a new graduate five years ago. With a financial crisis and a eurozone crisis separating now from then, I’ll go back to my familiar politics by bicycle, slow travel through nations that still wait to either enter or exit the European club, or who try to beat a new path inside of it. As the UK’s attention turns from Leveson and a corrupt media, and looks anew at Libor, HSBC, and a corrupt banking system, I pack my panniers and pump up my tyres, and return to watching Europe from the vantage point of a beat-up, leather saddle.

This article first appeared here.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Sayarer is cycling from London to Istanbul, he blogs at thisisnotforcharity.com, follow him on Twitter @julian_sayarer.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt