Roy Porter points out in the very first sentence of ‘London: A Social History’ that London is ‘not the eternal city’. Unlike Rome, where we’ve been living for the last 18 months or so, London won’t even be in the EU in a year’s time*, which might make it appear odd that someone (me) who spent the few weeks after the Brexit vote listening to this on repeat is actually quite pleased to be back in the UK capital. To its credit, my home country is not (unlike Italy) on the verge of electing a mummified pedophile oligarch hand in hand with two actual fascists/supporters of racist terrorism to political power, but given the seemingly unstoppable influence of this walking answer to the question what-might-a-British-equivalent-of-Hitler-have-been-like?, the March on London can’t be too far off.
Others have pointed out the incongruous but not quite coincidental fact that many of the main Brexit conspirators (Hannan, Carswell, Banks, etc) have colonial origins. They are, after a fashion, foreigners, resentful outsiders determined to destroy what they’ve never understood (making them, in that sense, not all that different from Isis). They’re presumably sick of being asked by taxi drivers puzzled by their obvious distaste for and ignorance of their own culture, ‘Where are you actually from, guv?’.
Although many Londoners are (rightly) proud that it didn’t vote to excommunicate itself from the EU, it is where the process is being orchestrated from (however haphazardly), and a quick peek beneath the surface of recent British political history reveals the deep hydraulic fractures which caused the fissure: the burning resentment occasioned by the illegal War in Iraq, nearly a decade of ideologically-inspired austerity, and continuous agitation and scapegoating by the xenophobic hard-right of the Tory Party. The ideology espoused by the Brexiters (a deregulatory Year Zero, back to the good old days before the godawful NHS and the horrors of the Welfare State, to the time when we could still sell slaves, opium and cupcakes to whoever we damn well chose) is actually not too far off the policies put into practise over the last eight years; they just want to go so much faster.
One wonders how Daniel Blake would have voted had he still/ever been alive. The notion that the referendum represented a peasant’s revolt even though it was directed and armed by the lords of the manor is still depressingly, but understandably, prevalent. The ruling class was split, and some of its most visible representatives were pushing the notion that the status quo is essentially fair and just. This is a global problem, because regardless of the causes, the way things are is not the way they should be. For all their undoubtedly sincere commitment to liberal principles, the economic neoliberalism of Macron and Merkel is not going to protect us from evil forces pushing easy (and evermore violent) solutions. Anyone still wondering how Brexit came about is advised to have even the slightest contact with Jobcentre Plus. I called them the other day on the mistaken understanding that they could provide me with an apparently-essential piece of paper with my NI number on it, and received a salutary lesson in the mixture of infuriating condescension (“did you know that you could look at our website?!” repeated ad infinitum) and callous indifference (“If you haven’t received a payment due to you, why don’t you wait for a few more days?”) to which society’s most needy are systematically subjected to.
Many argue that London is immune to and not responsible for all this cruelty and chaos. London isn’t really the UK, it’s tempting to think, or at least hope. It’s a successful, global city – just look at all those who want to own property here! Well, yes, that’s all very nice for those who can afford it. As for those who were born in London and/or have spent decades of their lives here…well, maybe they were never really Londoners, or at least don’t deserved such a hallowed status. To look for a potential silver lining in the mountain of shit to be dumped on us over the coming years, perhaps London will become less attractive to those who have no actual interest in living here, but do possess an apparently unrestrainable desire to make lots of money by depriving those who do of floors, walls and ceilings; maybe all those bankers will piss off and make the city more equitable and affordable. Conversely, it may be that those bankers, thanks to the finance industry’s insistence that the government not do a full Jim Jones, save us from the worst of Brexit.
So, clearly we didn’t move back to London out of any sense of political optimism. No one quite knows quite what effect the impending changes will have, least of all those who are (ahem) ‘planning’ them. Nobody, that is, who’s never watched ‘Children of Men’ or seen the government’s secret economic projections. My former area of employment (English as a Foreign Language) seems to have already collapsed in anticipation. How whatever-is-going-to-happen will affect higher education is anyone’s guess. Very badly, at a rough estimate, at least for those who are trying against all the odds to do meaningful jobs in an increasingly absurd environment. Meanwhile, the privatisation of the state school system continues apace; my own most immediate work prospects seems to involve being part of that very process.
According to my distinguished neighbour Iain Sinclair, one must belong to a place before writing about it. Do I belong in London? After all, it’s not my hometown, nor that of my wife, although she does hold a British passport and has just got a new job which makes our lives here viable. I’ve come to live in London twice before, once for a disappointing post-university stint in the dim light of which I exiled myself in Dublin, Lisbon, Dalian and Madrid for a total of twelve years. I returned in 2006, sort of by default, always feeling a little like an outsider. If I wanted to be poetic, I could make out that the interim period between Mexico City, Bangkok and Rome was a Marco Polo-style learning trajectory, allowing me to reflect on issues of inequality, gentrification, immigration, belonging, centrality and my own place and role in the world.
I’m happy to admit that right now I feel excited to be here, to the point that it feels a little like moving here for the first time. Partly as a result of having lived elsewhere, knowing something of the place, having time to explore, and reading (after several failed attempts) Sinclair’s lengthy, rambling, and often deeply frustrating tome about Hackney, I feel oddly cheerful about being back in the same city as both him and, er, David Davies. Compared to Rome, the buses here run regularly and on time (any hopes that Salvini will do the same for the trains are probably moot); just like in Rome, there are abundant museums and galleries, but they are free to enter. All of these things are, of course, contingent, and very much under threat. Trump’s equivalents in the UK will try to destroy all that cannot be readily converted into shareholder value: frack under our houses, privatise our schools, monetise our future ailments caused by the rolling deregulation of everything that makes life livable.
But for the time being, the cultural and social possibilities within close range of our flat are endless. There are bookshops just metres away from my door which seem designed for my particular sensibilities. Browsing their latest additions I feel that they’ve read my mind – until, that is, I realise that they’ve written it. I’ve been primed, by the Guardian and the LRB, to want to read certain kinds of books, and thus to buy more than I could ever hope to actually get through. I’m not merely the object of marketing pressures, my tastes are the product of factories of desire. In my case, it’s books rather than branded sportswear which make me most likely, if I were to be denied them by cruel and capricious circumstance, to hurl bricks at shop windows. Zygmunt Bauman categorised those involved in the London Riots of 2011 as ‘frustrated consumers’; perhaps my role in London is merely that of a consumer, of culture, of property, of space and time. I’m free, for the time being, to be a tourist in my ‘own’ city.
In terms of being productive, previous generations of Italian emigrants were restricted in their career choices to the purchase of a barrel organ and a dancing monkey (which is actually not too far from what I was reduced to in Rome, entertaining children under the pretence of preparing them for an exam that they didn’t see the point of). In London the available jobs in education are of a not dissimilar nature, but at least I’m more familiar with the territory and the language and therefore more likely to bite back if poked with a stick. A further irony of Brexit is that the UK’s innovations in the forms of privatisation have been copied across the continent – it was after all a UK qualification that I was pushing in Rome. Having spent years studiously avoiding learning too much about the mess of academies, grant-maintained, faith schools, and so on, I’ll soon be in the midst of it all. Many schools are, largely as a result of PFI, struggling to survive, and surely shouldn’t be spending as much as they do on supply teachers, but what the hey, I need a job. What the Tories said about Labour was, in a twisted way, true – the amount they spent on essential infrastructure was irresponsible (although it wasn’t the reason for the bailout of the banks), only insofar as it was based on borrowing from the ‘private sector’ at unsustainable rates – a policy which was started and has been continued by the Tories. Schools, hospitals, and entire councils are now being pushed into bankruptcy as a direct result of the ‘financial innovative’ pyramid schemes run by loan sharks far too powerful to threaten.
And yet, despite all these hazards and hypocrisies, and without wanting to sound like Nigel Farage complaining about people speaking foreign on trains language it is pleasant, after a couple of years being an obvious outsider and struggling with self-consciousness every time I open my mouth, to be immersed in my ‘own’ language again. It’s also enjoyable to hear and be able to identify a range of accents and languages, especially as I move around London, from Turkey, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Nigeria. I benefit from and treasure this diversity. (You can’t get jolloff rice in Rome…) Reflecting on this, and on how the things I most enjoy about cities (diversity, multiculturalism) are those that inspire rage attacks in those with willfully provincial attitudes gives me a sense of…pride? That is, I would argue, a problematic term.
Although I wouldn’t want to live elsewhere in the UK, I do suffer from that metropolitan arrogance and its reverse, a certain chippy northerness. The notion (mooted on social media post-referendum) that London should ‘declare independence’ from the rest of the UK displays a willful ignorance of how the levels of infrastructural investment spent and the political choices made in the capital have systematically worsened the life-chances of the rest of the country. If London is more diverse and culturally richer, it’s partly because it can afford to be. So many want to come and live here even though so many others are being or have been forced to leave. Such thoughts may contribute, sooner or later, to a change in my mood; I am, after all, in a honeymoon period – any more contact with Richard Branson’s megalomania, whether taking a train back up north, sorting out the internet (Murdoch’s megalomania or Branson’s? What a choice!) or having a kidney removed will renew my antipathy to all that this city and country stand for, and that’s even before the shock doctrine/national suicide of Brexit kicks in.
Certainly, few writers would view the current state of London as a reason for cheerfulness. Iain Sinclair’s latest book is called ‘The Last London’, whose pessimistic prognosis that the city’s future has little to do with the more laudable or interesting aspects of its past is not new, even in the recent past – China Mieville published an essay called ‘London’s Overthrow‘ in 2012. Sinclair implies that the truth of Will Self’s observation that most people live on the tube map of London rather than in the city per se has become even more stark in an age where so many experience the city at a distance, floating above it on their devices, with little regard for its intimate histories or deeper geographies. he also suggests that when the pace of turnover of buildings and people reaches a certain critical mass, when so many who have made their lives here – no matter where they were born – are being forced to leave or hanging on under immense pressure, the notion that the city continues to be the same place in any meaningful sense is problematic. To live here and enjoy doing so, to see oneself as a ‘Londoner’ in such a context involves being riven by contradictions, particularly when one’s very presence usurps what was there before. On Google Streetview I can, from the comfort of our brand new building, take a walk down the street below as it was eight years ago when it was a council block awaiting demolition, before, in the same breath, watching a (moving and enraging) film made by a local artist documenting the subsequent destruction of an entire way of life. (I could then, also on my laptop, pontificate online about cities as sites of psychic energy, haunted places, without reflecting too deeply on the implications.)
The area we live in is, truth be told, an emblematic example of gentrification. A few years ago, back when I was living in the considerably less cool environs of Stratford, I joined a walking tour called ‘Keep Hackney Crap’, which was the tongue-in-cheek response of a group of local housing activists of the local mayor, who had publicly accused those critical of his council’s ‘regeneration’ schemes of defeatist thinking. After we’d been led from horror to horror, from entire burnt out rows of houses to million pound developments built on the crushed remains of 1960s developments with nary a concern for the fate of those who used to live there, we ended up at Broadway Market, sneering at the yuppie scum sipping surreally expensive lattes and absurdly overpriced almond croissants. The thought struck me that were I not to be spending Saturday morning learning about inequality, I’d very much have liked to be sitting in one of those very cafes reading about it in The Guardian. Regardless of how expensive and exclusive they are, the hipster cafes which characterise Hackney nowadays are much nicer than the fried chicken places they replaced. Nevertheless, anyone tempted to conclude that gentrification is therefore natural or harmless try to see how many non-white faces there are around Columbia Road market on a Sunday morning, or how many truly local people, ie from the neighbouring estates, use the reservoir up at Manor House. Social cleansing as practised in London has a very powerful inbuilt element of racism which is not disguised by the promoters of luxury apartment developments remembering to photoshop the odd black face on their advertising billboards for their (and our) neoliberalised dreamworlds.
Of course, other forms of exclusion and violence are less insidious, more direct and thus easier to recognise and condemn. The attacks that took place in 2017 around Borough Market are a reminder that regardless of wherever they operate Isis/Al Qaeda et al habitually target street markets as a means of causing maximum carnage and thus gaining maximum attention. Of course, it’s easier to attack the poor where they live and shop, to get at physical stalls on actual streets where cash is being exchange for material goods, than it is to reach and damage global circuits of exchange. The word ‘market’ is, after all, a poor metaphor for how the global economy operates. Ridley Road, for example, is a market, whereas the way housing is distributed in London is nothing of the kind. The ‘housing market’ in London has little to do with demand for places to live, but is rather a parasitical trade in a certain asset class which, misleadingly, goes by the same name and happens to involve both bricks and mortar. In a functioning city (London, so often trumpeted as a ‘successful’ city, is certainly not so when it comes to housing), a place to live must be recognised if not as a right then at least something with use value. In London, on the other hand, houses and pubs are being replaced by blocks of empty ‘luxury’ flats, desert city architecture which will never be and never have been inhabited, devoid even of ghosts. Thus, as Sinclair argues, the link between generations is being lost, in return for money which ebbs and flows within global networks encompassing terrorism and crime. Surely a lesson from McMafia must be that the notion of criminal groups including Isis as marginal, outside the global economy, must, by the nature of the way such things operate, be mistaken. It’s integral to how financial hubs such as London operate. Not for nothing did Roberto Saviano name the UK as the most corrupt country in the world, and Brexit is destined (and given the very active involvement of shady tax-dodging financial interests, partly designed) to allow for even more of this particular type of ‘deregulated’ financial activity.
When terrorist attacks have taken place in Western cities, there has been a spate of hashtags called things like #wearelondon. The Museum of London is using that very slogan in his fundraising efforts, and there’s a (quite staggeringly trite) Madness song with the same title. I understand the need of young people in particular to be proud of where they’re from (this Nike advert inspires even me to take a certain pride in lifestyles and scenes I can’t exactly claim any credit for or part in). Nonetheless, when I see such slogans I can’t help feeling a certain cynicism, thinking in particular of those who’ve been priced, burnt or brexited out of the city over the last few years. Should ‘being a Londoner’ be a source of pride nowadays? Or is it rather a badge of unwarranted privilege?
To be proud of something, you have to be part of it in some meaningful way. On previous occasions moving to London, I was desperate to be involved somehow in the nightlife. Thankfully nowadays that’s no longer an issue. Tempting to say it must be better than Rome, but then to be fair we went to Italy to have a baby and only ever left the flat after dark to stock up on emergency nappies. The prospect of returning to London filled my head with fantasies of late nights and favourite drinking haunts. There will be few late nights, but then so many of the pubs have shut down in any case. I will only experience a ever-depleting fraction of what this city has to offer, in both a positive and negative sense (I hope I never live through the kinds of migration, housing and work-related horrors described by writers such as Hsiao-Hung Pa, Ben Juddah, and Anna Minton). Nonetheless, our daughter, who sadly so far has shown little interest in exploring the grime haunts of East London, will grow up a Londoner, at least for the foreseeable future. I hope she feels that the city is hers and feels lucky to live here, but not that it belongs to her alone.
It is, of course, a luxury to escape a situation of political discomfort and economic despondency (even if it means jumping onto another rapidly-shrinking iceberg). Regardless of the outrageous limbo in which EU citizens in the UK find themselves, there’s something slightly tasteless about British people discussing where they can escape to after Brexit, especially when you consider how few Syrian refugees the UK has taken in. Few born here are in any physical danger because of Brexit, and maybe instead of looking to carry on our lives elsewhere unhindered by history there’s something more useful, indeed responsible we can do: After all, we will not be not the main victims of Brexit, and in any case the world was not by any means a perfect place before June 23 2016. The lesson for me involves learning to engage, not to be a tourist who’s just here to consume. One aspect of Brexit is that many of us (assume that we) will be shielded from its consequences, just as we’ve been sheltered from the direct impact of austerity to the point where we can condemn those who voted for Brexit without taking due account of the myriad ways in which our life-chances have enabled us to make more responsible and rational political choices. Maybe one way of overcoming our anxieties about our own fates is to join forces with those for whom complacency is another manifestation of privilege.
*Although I suspect that now they realise that Brexit is basically impossible, the sane members of the Government will try to get a transition period of at least 300 years.