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All change please - Boris’s travel announcements must terminate now

These are times that try men’s souls.


These are times that try men’s souls. And women’s, obviously. This is, I gather, the “London issue” of this magazine but I am finding it hard to fall into line as I am actually beginning to get sick even of the very word “London”. If I write “London 2012” here, could the Olympic Branding Police come round to the Hovel and take me off to a nice prison somewhere up north, please? Somewhere without a telly?

Seriously, a city that has got large, well-populated sections of it that are accessible only by train or buses with letters as well as numbers on the front has got to be seriously screwed up when it starts bragging about itself as a world contender. I am thinking, precisely, of Clapham Junction but I am sure you can nominate your own south London contender, what with only 10 per cent of tube stations even now being south of the river. 

The Beloved hails from these regions and often mocks me for the anxiety that strikes me the moment I travel across or under the Thames, but even she concedes that there is something wrong about buses with letters on them as well as numbers.

Korea move

But not nearly as wrong as the pre-recorded announcements being made at stations. While dashing to catch a train to Clapham J the other day, I suddenly heard the voice of London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, urging me, as far as I could tell through the haze of my own urgency and nausea, not to take a train during the Olympics. What fresh hell, I murmured to myself, is this? Are we now living in North Korea? I have before, in this very column, borrowed the term “gestapo khazi” from Peter Cook in order to describe this country’s push towards stupid authoritarianism but this new intrusion into our public life, both farcical and sinister, is a New Low. Last week, when I said that an Olympic travel-related fiasco on a grand scale would finish “Jackanapes” Johnson’s re-election chances for good, I was, I feared, being a little optimistic; but now I have heard his voice on the platforms, and those murmured “fuck off, Boris”es that raise a little cheer from other commuters, I begin to think that he really might have gone too far. 

If there’s one thing that Johnson incarnates, it is that toxic mixture of greed and ambition that has done so much to enhance the reputation of the Conservative Party in recent years and – more relevantly – the widening wealth gap visible in this city. This is really beginning to get me down. Go into the centre of town and you risk being run over by some bell-end in a Ferrari who thinks it’s fun to do 60mph in town. Go to Shepherd’s Bush and you risk being run over by someone in an electric wheelchair who thinks it’s fun to do 15mph on a crowded pavement. 

I jumped over the wealth divide the other day. The Beloved and I were invited to a dinner in Islington, mwah mwah. Actually I do not want to be too rude about this as one of the hosts is an old friend, and his girlfriend, who owns the flat I went to, is delightful, but still there are Things to be said. 

The first is, well, Islington. Have you seen it lately? I’m old enough to remember when it was run down. This is the kind of thing that can really age one. But that’s not the real problem. That would be the venue. Do you get the idea if I say there was a lift from street level to the living-room itself? I didn’t see this until the end of the evening, and when we went down 

I suggested we all move to the edges. I mean, only supervillains have private lifts, right? With floors that open to plunge you into a pool of sharks. 

Guest from hell

I was anxious to escape because one of the guests was one of those people you wish never to see again in your life, but who always shows up. The last time I met this pustule, whom I shall call “Damian”, it was at the last dinner party I went to, which was about 15 years ago. Having endured him at both big and little schools for over a decade, I had wearied of him before he started becoming the Person Who Pops Up Every Few Years and Makes You Think You’re Living in a Novel Sequence by Anthony Powell. Fate has a nasty sense of humour sometimes. 

But my big problem, the one that has been keeping me awake for days now, was with the bookshelves. The flat, as tall as the Sistine Chapel, was well-stocked with books. But, as a design statement perhaps, all the spines had been turned to the wall. And when this happens – books as pure decor – we can truly be said to have come to civilisation’s end. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue