Moving back to London in the age of Brexit

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Roy Porter points out in the very first sentence of ‘London: A Social History’ that London is  ‘not the eternal city’. Thus it is distinct from Rome, where I and my family have 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 honoured 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 most 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 lucky to  live , 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.

Six years in Marylebone 

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The renowned architectural critic Ian Nairn recorded in his 1961 essay about Marylebone that at the heart of the district, one he called ‘terribly civilised’, stood the Listener magazine. The fact that the area is now prominently home to Monocle seems to exemplify a shift. Although I’ve never lived in that part of London, I was a sort of blow-in, in that I worked from late 2009 to early 2015 in a language school on Manchester Street, one which bravely hung onto to a very marketable location for some years but has recently been forced out by rents in the region of £100,000 a year.

It’s customary to think of Marylebone as well-heeled and genteel. It certainly has a character, albeit not one that I particularly identify with. In any case that character may be getting killed off, written out of the script. Chiltern Street is the centre of the gentility, with its reliably expensive wedding dress outlets, woodwind shops and hunting gear outlets, seemingly straight out of Jeeves and Wooster. It’s deeply Old Tory: patrician, leisurely, all tweed and creased leather. By contrast, the advent of Monocle with its neoliberal hipsters seems like a Viz parody of the ‘globalist’ worldview. (A typical cover of the magazine proclaims that ‘style has returned’ to wherever has been most crippled by austerity. It’s easily parodiable.) There’s also a bit of a walking joke striding around, in the form of Jeremy Clarkson, who seems to have a liking for an absurd gentrified pub called Gunmaker’s, one which is so salubrious it’s like an upper class person’s idea of a British local, bedecked in pristine union jacks and selling high-faluting sausage rolls and £8 scotch eggs from the Ginger Pig across the square .

International money is buying into that image – or possibly buying it up. The anodyne ‘luxury’ new flats may be a sign that local Tory sympathisers are being priced out by people who don’t exist and therefore don’t vote. Significantly, the owner of our school was a personal friend of Jeremy Hunt, someone heavily invested in education-as-online-transaction, and David Cameron was seen trying to endear himself to the neoliberal gentry in the Chiltern Firehouse (maybe he was also a regular customer at the Ginger Pig…). The greasy spoon cafe Blandford’s went suddenly upmarket, in competition with the Nordic Bakery and various other healthier outlets catering to European eating habits. Then there are the chains which, rather as Karl Marx – whose daughter stood as a local election candidate – predicted, increasingly dominate: Pizza Express, Sandro, six or seven branches of Eat crowding each other out. In my time there restaurants and shops came and went in the space of a few months, due to the hurricane-like pressures of retail rents.

It would be a tragedy if Daunt Books (on Marylebone High Street) fell prey to such forces. It’s one of London’s best bookshops, with its friendly and erudite staff. Although its selection of literature and poetry is almost beyond equal, it’s not the kind of place that has a section on critical theory or hosts talks by Ian Sinclair. It’s a long way from Hackney, more Alan de Button than Jeanette Winterson. The atmosphere is like Stanford’s, with its slightly late-19th century travel section. The fact that it is just up the road from the typically overstocked Oxfam and round the corner from the reliably excellent library is some indication of the local quality of life.

An emblematic loss which my time in Marylebone bore witness to was the demise of the Tudor Rose. It combined the worst pub menu outside Scholar’s Pub in Rome with the kind of clientele who even Jeffrey Bernard might have turned his nose up at, including a landlord whose own alcohol consumption may have been the only thing keeping the place in business (not much of a business plan, it turned out, especially if you are also fond of the old gee-gees). It’s been replaced by the kind of place which is probably lovely if you can afford it. Although my colleagues insisted that Marylebone counts as central London, it always felt to me more like the west, peopled mostly by sloanes who rarely went east of Tottenham Court Road. The closure of a place like the Tudor Rose definitely moved it a few more inches in the direction of the setting sun.

There was a sense of an uneasy coalition between old and new money. This LRB article details how the values of Theresa May are not the same as those of the neoliberal ‘globalists’. What the impact of Brexit will be on London no one can say. Britain will be more ‘open for business’ than ever before, which is another way of saying that everything of value will be for sale to all comers. As it happens, most of the time I spent working there I was living in Haringey, whose council is currently doing all it can to get rid of its human population and replace it with notional numbers on distant computer screens, or at least happy smiling computer-generated white people on vandal-proof billboards. Cycling back and forth between Haringey and Marylebone probably balanced out my life expectancy: in 2011-2013 there was a two-year difference between the two. Although that may have been levelled off by the fact that as I hit Euston Road, I passed through the area with the highest level of air pollution in the country. At least, thanks to Brexit, London’s contravention of EU clean air regulations won’t be a problem for very much longer. Anyone who thinks that bodes well for the local quality of life may well find that they’re whistling, or rather coughing, in the wind.

The West will rise again

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.

Fuck your ‘false flag’

Within minutes of the news breaking about the absolutely horrifying terrorist attacks in London, across social media people were coming up with and spreading conspiracy theories about the attack. They encouraged whoever came across their posts to ‘keep an open mind’.

Here’s a theory of mine about those who carried out the attacks:

They were young men who spent all their time stoned online watching all sorts of utterly irresponsible and scurrilous videos on YouTube. They rejected the ‘mainstream media’ as inherently corrupt and believed that the Internet gave them access to deeper and more dangerous truths hidden from ordinary people, who they regarded as catastrophically naive.

And here’s a message from me to those spreading inane and obnoxious conspiracy theories about the London attack:

The appropriate response to the indiscriminate mass murders is not to ‘keep an open mind’. It’s to read the facts as reported by responsible and professional journalists who were on the scene. Those who abuse social media to spread puerile conspiracy theories are little better than the hate preachers who exploit the horror to push their violent and racist agendas.

Have respect for the victims by reading the established facts about what was done to them. Don’t hide from the reality of what happened by ignoring news reports. After all, you’re supposed to be an adult. Claiming that the ‘MSM’ is all the same, that the Guardian or the BBC are no more to be trusted than the Daily Star or Fox News, is puerile. It also happens to be what Donald Trump wants you to believe.

When dealing with the mass media, be critical, but don’t be gullible or cynical. These events are real, just like Climate Change is real. Don’t get misled by manipulative but comforting internet fairy tales. That’s one way that young men (and it is always, always, always young men) get to the point where they can carry out things like this.

And don’t take the apparent fact that the three dead terrorists were known to police as evidence of collusion. If the police arrested all young men suspected of jihadi sympathies, thousands upon thousands of presumably innocent people would have to be interned. We haven’t yet got to that point, thank God. Similarly, if anyone can think of ways to stop people driving vans into pedestrians or running into crowded open spaces with knives, feel free to suggest them. These are complex, difficult issues – it’s far easier to just shout ‘ban Islam!’ or ‘false flag!’. Such responses are not, in the end, all that dissimilar: thoughtless, kneejerk reactions to a seemingly intractable problem (of young men disaffected to the point of psychopathic nihilism and exploited by political interests), which can only be meaningfully addressed by means of the application of intelligence and patience, with respect for the rule of law and human rights absolutely paramount. Let’s do everything we can to ensure we will soon have a government which understands that.

If you want to link these attacks to the election, don’t be a dick and go around telling people that they were secretly carried out by The Man. Point out that the heroes of the hour – the police, the paramedics, the surgeons and nurses – are all having their jobs, wages and conditions cut and the services they provided exploited for profit, and the survivors of such tragedies, those left physically crippled and/or psychologically damaged by the experience, are bullied and made destitute by a Government that has complete contempt for the notion of the public good. All of that happens to be true – you don’t need to believe in some sub-Infowars bullshit conspiracy theory to see that our rulers urgently need to be replaced. The basic facts about injustice and corruption are not hidden, however consoling it may be to pretend that they are. The idea that the world is run in secret is useful to the powerful – if it were true, it would leave us powerless to do anything about it. Thankfully, it isn’t, and we’re not. If you want to exercise your power, get offline and go canvassing instead. We have very little time left.

Who can mark themselves safe from the changing climate?

It would be beyond absurd to vaingloriously demand that the alacrity and visceral passion with which people repond to random violent attacks on cities they live in or regularly visit were extended to every single news report involving human suffering. I myself, although I don’t live in London at present, pass through Westminster regularly and I also have dozens of friends and former colleagues who could easily have been amongst those murdered. But.

The near-total indifference on social media to stories like this never ceases to be maddening and dispiriting. Social media has, as so many have eloquently explored of late, a collective mechanism for hiding from that which makes us most uncomfortable and constructing an alternative, simpler reality.

I understand why people mark themselves safe, and am glad to see friends and acquaintances do so. But who can mark themselves safe from the climate? Maybe by avoiding sharing, liking and commenting upon such stories we believe at some level that we are making ourselves immune. What we haven’t seen can’t affect us. It’s not part of our world. And how could we not be immune, given that we don’t regard ourselves as responsible?

As for the number 1 Twitter hashtag (#prayforlondon), if only we could ‘pray’ for the stability of our climate, or at least for the courage to try to preserve that stability. To quote Soren Kierkegaard, “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”. If only we would bring ourselves to at least reflect on the facts presented to us by (in this case) reponsible journalists and eminently trustworthy scientists, we might start to understand the connection between the prevalence of infinitely more deadly (if not so telegenic and instantaneous) climate disasters and our own (abdicated and disavowed) responsibility to make lifestyle choices and political commitments which ensured that humanity as a whole could be marked safe.

Terrorism is the evocation of fear for political purposes. My terror is that we are as a species incapable of responding to knowledge of our impending self-annihilation. The political and social consequences of such awareness appear to be too serious and too massive for us to accept. In the words of Philip Larkin, this is a special way of being afraid.

Thus: what is indifference to climate change (mine, yours, all of ours) but another form of terrorism? One which becomes no less frightening or threatening by virtue of our incessant muting and unfollowing of our knowledge of it? The fear just expresses itself in other ways. That, to me, is the main reason we are nowadays so given over to anger at others. It is an expression of frustration at our collective impotence, and as such it is the perfect fuel for fascism.

What’s the alternative? Start by reading this, and then post it all over your social media outlets.

Immediate consequences of the attack in London

​Marine Le Pen, bubbling with ebullience after talking to France 24 in appropiately forthright tones about the French students injured in the attack, has sent a triumphant text to her beloved papa and cracked open some decent champagne she was saving for just such a special occasion, while Nigel Farage, who was about to head home to whoever he’s using as a wife this month, has instead ordered another pint of IPA and starting to feel nicely settled in. Donald Trump is sitting on the Oval Office toilet with his iphone in his other hand, wondering what he can say to the cameras that will make him sound important, as if he really was President of the United States, and also hoping that whatever has happened won’t interfere with his golfing plans. Meanwhile, Theresa May is asking herself if this will mean she gets to go on playing at being Prime Minister for the time being, and also feeling a bit guilty whenever she hears the Houses of Parliament described in the news reports as the ‘home of democracy’, as she knows very well that what she’s planning to do next Wednesday will make (yet another) hollow mockery of such a claim. Throughout the United Kingdom friends and families are starting to receive messages and phone calls from which they will never quite recover, while all over the world middle managers of airline companies which fly in and out of the Middle East are wondering if they’re ever going to get to go home, kiss their kids goodnight and lie down to sleep off their nagging headaches.

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet

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Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, a translator who took refuge in Rome but was murdered by Mossad in 1972. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

Brief Encounters: London 4pm

Strolling away from the almost bucolic festival environment of the climate camp about 4pm on Wednesday, I hear a conversation between an obese woman and her exhausted looking colleague. ‘Of course’, she says, ‘this is all based on the idea that climate change is true’. I look at her, shocked. The man grunts his assent and they labour their way up the street.

Turning left out of Russell Square tube about the same time the following day, I hear a man behind me ask, ‘Do you think it’s changed you as a person?’. ‘No’, replies a woman’s voice. ‘Do you?’. Intrigued, I turn and look directly behind me, and see that the woman has a pirate-style patch over her right eye. The couple are holding hands. ‘No’, says the man. The woman sees me staring at them and glares at me with her one good eye. It occurs to me that this would be a good starting point for a novel.

Passing a pub off Tottenham Court Road in the April sunshine, I see a fat man sitting at an outside table hungrily reading the newspaper. His t-shirt reads, ‘Fat men are harder to kidnap’. I check my phone. It is Friday, just after 4pm.

Ealing – the Promised Land of the Polish People?


I have nothing whatsoever against Polish people; although I can’t claim that any of my best friends are Polish, I have met some charming Poles over the years. In fact at the moment I have a couple in my class who I like enormously. And years ago, in my very first teaching job, on a glorious summer’s day in Dublin, I was given a class of 14 Polish au pairs, who seemed very sweet, outgoing and broadminded. Or at least they did until I happened to mention the word ‘gypsy’.

From that moment, as they skies outside the classroom suddenly filled with dark clouds the atmosphere in the classroom quickly turned to one of unadulterated racial hatred. Everybody had a bitter tale to tell about the filthy, lazy, scrounging scum plaguing their land. I was genuinely shocked as noone seemed to have the slightest reservation about advocating violence against an evidently fairly beleaguered community – 70% of Poland’s gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.

Of course it would have been churlish of me to point out that six of the main extermination camps were located in Poland, especially as so far as the Nazis were concerned it was all part of Germany anyway. But it just so happened that at the time I was reading a book about alcohol consumption around Eastern Europe, which mentioned that there is a very potent myth about the number of Jewish people living in Poland. Around three million died in the death camps, it said, and although official statistics state that there are now only about 15,000 remaining, most Polish people would apparently state with confidence that the real number is more like a good couple of million. So in the midst of this firestorm of racist attitudes I decided to find out if this was really the case, and my students, who before had seemed perfectly good-natured and tolerant, obliged by letting me know in detail about the scandal of Poland’s hidden jews. I don’t think they were talking about Anne Frank.

Partly because of this, I’ve never considered Poland as a possible destination, either for living or for a holiday. Too cold, too grey, too superstitious and too, well, racist. And certainly as far as the political side of things go, I think I’ve recently been considerably vindicated. The weather, as far as I know, has not improved much either.

I can understand, then, why people might not want to live there. Now, of course, the country is part of the EU and Polish people are free to travel to work – anyone who has been anywhere near Victoria coach station in London over the last couple of years can witness just how many of them are keen to come to the UK and find a job. They come to places like Ealing.

Now I want to make it clear here that I am totally in favour of immigration. It enriches the destination country economically, culturally, linguistically – in every conceivable way. Places like London, Sheffield and, now, Dublin are infinitely better-off for enjoying such a variety of different peoples from all over the world, and anyone who cares to suggest otherwise is well advised to spend a year or so in a place that doesn’t have such a mix – China, for example – and then see how they feel.

The problem that I do have is that here in Ealing, where I work, that mix is largely limited to the people you see on the streets. Because the moment you step into a cafe or a pub, the first thing you notice is: that almost all the staff are white. It’s quite rare to be served by black, Pakistani or Bengali people – by, that is, locals. The majority of people working in these jobs are Polish and have come here very recently, and they are doing jobs which, on the whole, would otherwise be done by people who were either born here or have lived here longer – for want of a better word, British people, wherever their families originated from.

The same point was made in an article in the Guardian late last year by Polly Toynbee, in which she talked about the recent opportunistic changes in Conservative Party Immigration policy. Her basic argument was that ‘the use of cheap foreign Labour may boost our GDP, but it enriches the well-off at the expense of the low-paid’. I can see her point, insofar as she is talking about recent arrivals from the new EU countries:

Bercow (Conservative MP) and Labour hotly assert that migrants don’t take jobs from British workers nor depress wages. But there is no evidence for this assertion. It is impossible to know what level wages might be at or how many unemployed might have been tugged into jobs at higher pay rates had Britain kept its doors shut to new EU citizens until their countries had caught up economically.

Blair and Brown embrace the inevitability of globalisation, but make a deliberately class-blind analysis. Migrants do bring GDP growth, but remember the Gate Gourmet workers fired to make way for cheaper newly arrived workers. Migrants add to the profits of the company and thus to GDP. They keep down the cost of flying for people wealthy enough to fly. They also hold down the pay rate for all other low-paid workers, keeping wage inflation remarkably low and the Bank of England very happy.

But all this does nothing but harm to the old Gate Gourmet workers and to all the other low-paid. This is what globalisation does, widening the gap between rich and poor. Cheap labour provides more cheap services for the rich to get their lifestyle at a premium while nailing an ever-larger swath of the workforce to the minimum-wage floor. The greatest job growth is in rock-bottom jobs.

London has the most migrant workers and it also has the most unemployed. Who are they? Many more young people are not in education or work after generations of deprivation. Bangladeshis are among the poorest because 80% of their women don’t work. Many more London single mothers can’t work because the cost of housing and childcare means even tax credits don’t lift them out of a poverty trap where a low-paid job means working at a loss.

This is quite a sophisticated argument because the superficial idea – that Eastern Europeans are coming over here and taking ‘our’ jobs, thereby deflating wages – seems like a classic racist rallying call. But we are talking here about a very sudden phenomenon, and one that seems to have been orchestrated from above precisely in order to achieve the objective of lowering wages.

I’m not actually very sure how I feel about the conclusions she comes to. In terms of possible solutions, the following is both seductive and shocking:

Try this thought experiment: 43.5% of nurses recruited by the NHS since 1999 come from outside the UK. What if that were banned? The NHS in London would find clever ways to recruit from the city’s mass of underqualified boys and girls, single mothers and other non-workers. Recruiters might set up special classes for 14-year-olds interested in nursing, promising work as nursing assistants while they trained, places to live in attractive nurses’ homes, starter homes for key-worker families, status and good pay. The offer would be irresistible, and yes, taxes would be higher.

Other employers would be in hot contest to entice the forgotten people into building, transport and catering. Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the market would force the workless into work. It is shocking that 30,000 of the 70,000 workers being employed to start work on transport infrastructure for the Olympics are to be east Europeans, not impoverished Londoners.

I’m not so certain about the ‘hidden hand of the market’. I think that’s just as much as a myth as Poland’s hidden millions of Jews. After all, one of the main reasons why people from low-wage countries are suddenly able to work in different countries is because the not-so-hidden-hand of European business and pro-business policy makers has determined that it is a convenient way of ‘reducing costs’ and making us all more ‘competitive’. And I find it doubtful that the new EU countries will rapidly ‘catch up’ with their wealthier neighbours, and find it difficult to believe that anyone really believes that – the most quoted statistic given for their ongoing level of economic development is GDP, which is, of course, and especially given that we are talking about wages here, nonsense. Those countries have been brought into the EU because it is cheaper to produce things there and workers will work for less money.

Nevertheless I don’t think there is some kind of idealised version of EU capitalism where everybody could be content to stay put and employers would have their workers’ best interests at heart. Globalised capitalism only allows and encourages people to move when it’s in its own very best interests, and it is cheaper to hand over low-paid jobs to EU newcomers than it is to provide longer-term immigrants – asylum seekers, for example – with the support and language training they need in order to be able to establish themselves here more permanently with proper jobs. After all, nobody should be working all week for the pittance that they pay you to work in cafes or bars these days, whether they were born in Britain, Bangladesh or Poland.

In conclusion, then, two unrelated points. One, that people from the Deep South must find it reasonably amusing that there is a country by the name of Po’land. And secondly, a prediction: in the not-too-distant future someone will pop up to proclaim that Poland is the China of Europe. Oh wait, someone just did.