When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.
When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.
The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.
Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh.
Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.
Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.
This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.
Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.