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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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