This week's NS: The London issue

Summer double edition: essays, fiction, art and photography inspired by the capital.

Special double edition with contributions from Vivienne Westwood, Matthew Hollis, Maurice Glasman, Will Hutton, Ruth Padel and Evgeny Lebedev, an essay by Will Self, a new short story by Joe Dunthorne, an interview with David Bailey and a specially commissioned 12-page  photo essay on the world's greatest city

This week’s New Statesman is a 92-page special issue on London. The double issue of the magazine features a series of capsule essays, “Tales of a city”, in which artists, authors and public figures reflect on their relationship with the capital. The pieces include:

 

  • Vivienne Westwood on a life spent in art galleries

  • Bim Adewunmi on Hackney’s inevitable gentrification

  • Alex Preston urges bankers to look up at the buildings they built

  • Ruth Padel argues the case for London Zoo

  • David Lammy questions whether London can be a place for everyone

  • Matthew Hollis travels on a boat down the Thames

  • Stuart Maconie offers a northerner’s take on the capital

  • Dorian Lynskey celebrates the Rough Trade record shop

  • Sarah Sands insists that no other city can compete with London

  • Maurice Glasman recalls gloomy childhood Sundays in Palmers Green

  • Evgeny Lebedev is grateful to a city that welcomed him

 

Will Self: Streets of love and anarchy

For a special essay, Will Self takes a stroll through south London with his son. They encounter pirate DVD sellers, 1970s tower blocks and Battersea Power Station – and Self remembers how much he loves, and hates, the protean city. Ralph Steadman has created an original illustration for the New Statesman to accompany this London essay.

 

Reporter at Large: Edward Platt

Last summer, Edward Platt set out in the footsteps of J B Priestley, tracking Britain’s post-industrial decline and revival. In the last of his “English journeys”, he visits the Isle of Dogs and Southwark, and discovers that urban poverty coexists uneasily with high finance. With photographs of Canary Wharf and the Shard by Stephen McLaren and Mimi Mollica.

 

Also in the London issue

  • An extensive photo essay, specially commissioned by the New Statesman, opens with a reflection on foreign depictions of the city by Sukhdev Sandhu, the author of London Calling and Night Haunts: a Journey Through the London Night. Across six spreads of the magazine, vintage photographs from Tate Britain's exhibition “Another London” (opens on 27 July) sit next to reinterpretations in images by the contemporary photographers Daido Moriyama, Alex Webb, Aaron Schuman, Jan Stradtmann, Noemie Goudal, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Mishka Henner and Richard Mosse.

  • David Bailey, whose iconic fashion and celebrity photos of the Sixties captured the essence of Swinging London, talks to Rebecca McClelland in the NS Interview.

  • We run a new short story by Joe Dunthorne, “The Cold War”, set in an east London park and with an illustration by Barry Falls.

 

Elsewhere in this week's NS

  • Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, reflects on what can be done about Britain’s gloomy outlook in the Economics Column.

  • In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr reports that Boris Johnson “has told aides he intends to perform his mayoral duties on an unofficial part-time basis after the Olympics”. With seven deputy mayors left to run the capital, Johnson will be afforded “three years of idleness” – which for Downing Street “means endless scope for political devilry”.

  • In the Critics section, Richard Mabey writes the third in his series of “seasonal diaries” for the NS on the “floral phantasmagoriahe" we have our unusually wet summer to thank for.

  • Leo Hollis examines attempts to transform London from a Victorian capital to a futuristic metropolis using the latest digital technology.

  • The former editor of the Observer, Will Hutton, writes examines three books by leading economists who dissent from the “austerian” consensus on the best solution to the economic crisis, both domestically and globally. 

  • Also in The Critics, the NS's pick of the top ten London novels, films and songs.

 

This week's double issue of the New Statesman, cover dated 30 July - 12 August 2012, is on newsstands and available for purchase here

 

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear