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London's streets of love and anarchy

A short walk through the capital takes our writer past pirate DVD sellers, 1970s tower blocks and Battersea Power Station – and he remembers how much he loves, and hates, this protean city.

“All right, big man,” said the pirate DVD seller outside Sainsbury’s Nine Elms, “I got ’em all.” He fanned out his merchandise in one hand – lurid movie posters, shrunken and photocopied – while casting furtive glances around the crowded car park. As a rule I take a hard line on any copyright infringements whatsoever; after all, my livelihood depends on its enforcement just as much as – and probably more than – those of News Corp’s shareholders, whose subsidiary, 20th Century Fox, made Prometheus, the film I ended up buying for three quid.

It was the “big man” that did it, really. I liked the transposition it seemed to suggest of the old cockney honorific “guv’nor” into a multicultural context; after all, was it an African “big man”, or a Scots one? And I also appreciated that the DVD scalper was himself a big man, who, like so many other thousands of immigrants to London, was trying to wrest the spark of a living from those stony gods, Gog and Magog. So I bought Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic, whose tagline is “The search for our beginning could lead to our end”, and my ten-year-old son and I strolled on. I was thinking about my own beginnings in the old Charing Cross Hospital – the Decimus Burton-designed building that is now the police station on the Strand – and I was thinking about this essay, the aim of which was somehow to encompass my feelings about my native city in this year of its very public orgy of attempted self-celebration.

I had almost managed to give the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a complete swerve; but sitting, at the beginning of June, exhausted by the journey, in a beautiful and remote house on the Hebridean island of Mull, I was appalled when one of the friends I was holidaying with turned on the television and settled down to watch the festivities. In his defence, his attraction was to camp rather than pomp, but I’d come a long way to avoid the flotilla on the drear Thames, with its freight of civil-list supernumeraries and drizzled-upon luminaries.

To the workaday Londoner, preoccupied by getting from A to B through tangled and metalenmeshed streets, the monarchical sideshow – which goes on in one form or another all year round – is just another practical annoyance. My heart never stirs when I’m pulled up by the Met so that tourists can gawp at busby-topped Guardsmen on the Mall; I usually just get off my bike and push it through St James’s Park.

As for the international festival of running and jumping shortly to take place on Stratford Marsh, I have argued vociferously against this monstrous corporate boondoggle and cynical exercise in political boosterism across a plethora of media in the past couple of years, and I shan’t waste precious space on reprising those arguments here. Suffice to say, the British – and particularly the London – taxpayers will see no return on their money; the so-called legacy of the Games will be merely the new ruins of overpriced stadiums, together with a steroidinduced collective hangover. While it gives me no pleasure at all to say this – although Schadenfreude is a very cockney indulgence – the Olympics fiasco does at least provide us with a real-time demonstration of all that is wrong with London’s governance.

The Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony extravaganza, centring on a mock-up of a fauxprimordial scene of the English bucolic – the bastard child of The Preludeand The Hay Wain– presents us with this teasingly absurd prospect: a tiny bit of rural idiocy, trapped like a green pearl in the soon-to-be-useless shell of the stadium, which in turn is marooned on the terminal beach of failed regeneration. The best – and I mean the very best – prospect for this part of east London, post-Games, is that the City carries on conjuring asset inflation out of credit default swaps, and that the capital of Chinese cadres and Russian asset-strippers continues to gurgle down the plughole of London property price inflation. With the goalposts of what constitutes “affordable housing” having been decisively shifted by the coalition government, the Westfield/Stratford complex of po-mo apartment uglification just might become another yuppieville like Canary Wharf.

What joy: yet more of London turned by the relentless tide of Manhattanisation into an area where public space has been shamefully ceded to private profit, and where the international buy-to-let brigade is serviced by corvées of globalised migrant labourers. But as I say, this is the best-case scenario, one in which London becomes still more detached from its hinterland: a Boris Island twinned with Singapore, in which the poor have no stake, and the municipal infrastructure that made the city great – Peabody, Guinness Trust and London County Council housing, London Transport, teaching hospitals and board schools – is little more than a series of quaint tableaux in a living museum.

The Potemkin local democracy, of which the blond bombshell – an enigma wrapped inside a whoopee cushion – is the utterly apposite figurehead, serves as a sideshow to the true and immemorial London politics. Looked at with the benefit of hindsight, the period 1860-1960 can be seen as an atypical century of greater democratisation and civic virtue. Now, once again, all that matters in London is the conflict between the national government and finance capital of any stripe.

Sparrow lark

Strolling through Nine Elms on Sunday afternoon, a mile or so – as a sparrow might once have flown – from Westminster, my son and I were presented with a choice: we could either go and ferret among the bric-a-brac stalls set out in the halls of New Covent Garden Market, where wholesale produce is flogged during the week, or we could head straight for the Thames Embankment.

The flea market is redolent of another, equally timeless London, one of Del Boy ducking and diving, getting by and getting on. It is culturally polyglot, socially democratic, and frenetically entrepreneurial. When I was growing up in north London in the 1960s and 1970s, people always talked about how ethnically diverse the city was – yet looked at from the vantage of 2012, this seems a nonsense. The two most momentous changes that have affected the city in my lifetime are the huge influx of capital, and the equally huge influx of immigrants. As for the cockney sparrows, they’ve gone.

Taking the alternative route under the railway bridge and past Market Towers, a 1970s multi-storey block at the top of Nine Elms now scheduled for demolition to make way for a mayor-endorsed “tall-building cluster”, we could reach the river with its long file of hefty real estate hugging the bank. New Covent Garden is also scheduled for demolition. I remember as a teenager passing along the dusty summertime streets around the old Covent Garden.

Two-storey hoardings had been put up to hide the works; the maggoty fruit’n’veg wholesalers were to be replaced with shiny, happy boutiques full of consumer durables. Now I have lived long enough in the metropolis to see its successor exiled to the Tory Siberia of outer London, so that still more room can be made for luxury flats and retail outlets.

The ostensible reason for all this upheaval on my manor is the touchdown – near the site of the old Stationery Office – of the dark star of the new US embassy, itself another exile from the centre, although the reason for this is said to be vulnerability to terrorist attack, rather than rising land values. Whatever the proximate cause, the American spooks and diplomats will be lodged on a new island, protected by a wide moat, and it is hard not to see this as an emergent motif of London in the 21st century. Boyle’s village, Boris’s proposed airport, the US bastion – all of them are islands, around which sweep the historical currents they attempt to master.

If we had taken the riverside route, my son and I would’ve had a couple of elegiac vistas to contend with. First Tideway Village, an impromptu settlement of water gypsies that over the years has grown up around two old freighters moored in an inlet. The freighters boast wind turbines, deck-bound lawns and even fully grown trees in giant pots – they, and a gaggle of other narrowboats, are well kept, and with their paradoxical air of wanderlust and rootedness they make a pleasing counterpoint to the steely warehousing units that surround them. Naturally, Tideway Village is to be done away with, in favour of a new Embassy Village development. It was madness to imagine that this whimsical community could possibly remain indefinitely, a floating bulwark against the rising tide of liquid finance. Still, further along the Thames there is at least this consolation: the vast bulk of Battersea Power Station, with its four chimneys like the “vast and trunkless legs” in “Ozymandias”, reminding wannabe developers to look upon the ruin and despair, for here at least is one instance of government trumping capital.

Without all the brickies of eastern Europe on the job, it would be impossible to restore the power station in accordance with its listed status, and so it simply goes on mouldering, a timely reminder of an age when London was an industrial centre and a port; an age when public utilities weren’t simply fungible assets to be cynically traded.

The relaxation of controls on immigration to London may have been a partly cynical and gerrymandering ploy on the part of the last Labour government, but the changing face of London’s population is where I see hope for the future. Naturally, the sheer irony of illegal immigrants from war-torn Afghanistan labouring to build the US embassy compound in sarf London (which, I have no doubt, will happen) appeals to me in a grim way: wasn’t the city’s charivari always thus? But more importantly, London has also always thrived on a steady influx of new people, at first from England, then the whole archipelago, and then still further afield. Each successive wave of immigrants has brought something new to London’s polity, and those who have come since 1945 have prevented it from becoming merely the sclerotic heart of a moribund empire.

The danger is that London becomes a sort of “double doughnut” city: with a sickly filling of the moneyed, surrounded by an inner leavening of the poor, which is in turn encompassed in another layer of the commuting and Pooterish middling sort. The neighbourhood where I live is typical of an inner-London residential area, in that the ebb and flow of gentrification has left it with rich and poor living cheek-byjowl, and both jumbled up now with sizeable Portuguese and East African communities. It’s a potentially volatile mix. Mostly we rub along, but sometimes the friction becomes too much.

Smoke and mirrors

Last year’s riots spread like sepsis along the arterial roads of London. Once the antibiotic of state crackdown had been prescribed, the souldoctoring began; and while all sorts of social ills were acknowledged, the one causal factor that politicians and self-appointed community leaders of all mainstream varieties refused to countenance was poverty.

John Barrell, in a recent essay in the London Review of Books, points out that this is a unique state of affairs: in centuries past, even the highest of Tories was happy to acknowledge that deprivation caused crime. But we live in a brave new conurbation now, the animating spirit of which remains a pursuit of growth irrespective of consequences – the physical growth of London’s built environment, which leads to the attenuation of the green belt; smoke-and-mirrors financial growth; and that growth in asset values that is so integral to the mental health of all Daily Mail readers everywhere.

That this growth takes place on the lip of a yawning gap between rich and poor is of little concern to the neoliberal nabobs who have imperfectly governed the city since the abolition of the Greater London Council, but the London mob is a timeless and self-dramatising force that cannot be contained, any more than Rupert Murdoch can stop Somali men selling knockoff copies of Prometheus. I love this city – love it unashamedly. And that love, like all the most passionate, is shadowed by an equal and countervailing hatred.

It is this ambivalence that keeps me locked into the spectacle of the city’s curious act of auto-cannibalism: chewing up the present, excreting the past and moving on. For all the depredations of the present era, I basically have no anxiety about London at all. It is too big, too anarchic and too protean ever to be subdued – let alone corralled by five poxy rings.


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 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue