3. Living for the City
(credits to Ed Cox for the amazing image of London docks pre redevelopment)
One of the most written about shifts supposedly catalysed by the pandemic is the looming urban flight of the professional classes. Mastheads from Politico to The Guardian and The Telegraph have recently run variants on the theme of the escape to nature with a particular focus, as is often the case, on London. There are a number of reasons why this is overly-simplistic and is unlikely to be the case. The partial uncoupling of ‘city–as-economic-unit’ from ‘city-as-physical-social-network’ will make London a more vibrant, more textured and perhaps less unequal place.
For many, London is a necessary evil. The lure of work, particularly ‘middle class’ professional jobs means that many people cram in for the economic opportunity that would rather be in towns or villages. I have known many people, grudging residents of London – not Londoners – who while away unhappy years never taking much advantage of world-class clubbing, or free ballet performances, 10-quid West-End show tickets or just a walk along the Thames. Now this ‘white collar proletariat’ has a chance to unshackle itself from those chains.
Of course, there is more to the city than it’s professional classes. But their departure will accelerate geographical diffusion of the skilled service sectors – the baristas, barmen and brewers that keep London sane. We can already see vegan Deli’s in outer London suburbs; expect some of these London emigres to take their taprooms with them; urban tastes will mix with the de-hipsterfication of ‘nice things’ – no one wants bad coffee – finally ending the perceived urban monopoly on 11 pound pints and beard oil (anyone ever notice how self-consciously male so much of this stuff is?). This is nothing new; this was Brighton in the 90s, and more latterly places like Margate. Don’t be surprised if towns with great train links for 2 days a week in the office, great city centre housing stock and good quality schools such as Bedford or Basingstoke or smaller spots in the stockbroker belt like Oxted start to attract a younger, pre-family demographic in their late 20s, and with them, their cafes and sourdough bakeries, sitting comfortably alongside existing traditional (non-ironic) butchers and hardware ‘levelling up’ the locavore scene in these places. Less genteel (‘edgy’) spots such as Gravesend or other Medway towns could provide alternative options for early-career workers, looking to make the most of first-job wages as they plan their next move.
Don’t however, expect this exodus to be one-way. As pressure is lifted from the city with the departure of the ‘have to be heres’ and their financial muscle, there is more scope for the ‘want to be heres’ to come. With reduction of office space and the pruning of the white collar work, there is a chance, with the right incentives to make the city more diverse. Artists, musicians and all those who benefit from cultural agglomeration effects of the city will have more scope to return; the kind of people that in the past acted as an accidental ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for scavenging property developers and ended up displaced by the cultural capital created by their own success.
As someone raised a Londoner, clutching an old paper travel card, who remembers 50p bus fares and the opening of the Tate, taking myself on the train to school (in South London, real London, there was and is no Tube) I am hopeful. I am looking forward to a more passionate and engaged London, where those who previously priced the willing out, buy themselves an exit instead. What I am hopeful for is a city with fewer residents who resent being here and more space to breath, financially, culturally and socially for those of us who choose to make it home.
It’s been almost 6 months since my last fresh blog post. My rolling list has 10+ pieces on it that I want to write and I have two, potentially never-to-be-published draft pieces on Singapore, rights and liberalism sitting on my desktop (One with the working title ‘ Just Because Your Paranoid’ and the other ‘The Pragmatism of Principle’- for those I know personally, if you want to have read, drop me an email). This very personal piece was drafted on a fast train London to Bristol to present my final UK debrief for a while to the marketing department of TSB (appropriately branded as ‘Local Banking for Britian’). And the High Contrast remix of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ has come on shuffle… the last song I listened to before I flew home temporarily two months ago. So bearing that in mind, you will excuse my indulgence in writing this piece rather than ‘The HDB Social Contract’ or ‘The Uniformity of Cool’ that are both still unwritten
Two months to close-up shop in London has been both quick and slow- the length of time I needed practically, but a strange, testing stretch. By the end, people in my office were commenting that they thought I had left already. Too short to get back into the rhythms of London; long enough to drink away the decent fitness I developed in 7 months of clean(ish) living in Singapore. Long enough to see the people I love and care about, but not long enough to do more than catch up and reminisce. And then back those relationships go into an odd kind of suspended animation, aging at a fraction of the speed of life.
So I am leaving London. Parting company with a city that is inextricably linked to my sense of who I am, and always will be. There are selfish reasons for this (smaller office, better career trajectory in a more placid talent pool), frivolous reasons (no reason not to gallivant round SE Asia for a few years of cheap sun and easy living) practical reasons (better wages and lower cost of living) but I want to talk about my philosophical reasons for the great love of my life and going ‘on a break’ while I have a fling with the Singaporean City-State’s great social experiment. Perhaps what follows is an intellectual alibi rather than a reasoned decision, but I think it doesn’t make the points any less valid.
I would like to caveat this, with the genuine belief that London still remains the cross the board leading global centre. There is a toughness and a care, a beauty and depravity, a blend of high culture and low morals, international ingredients marinated in local flavor that make it the accomplished all-rounder. New York lacks the self-effacement, San Francisco lacks the past, Paris lacks the Future. Sao Paulo the concentration of ‘Stuff’. Berlin lacks the work, and Singapore in truth, lacks the Play. I will always be a Londoner. And I will always give you a reason why ‘my town is better than your town’, even if I have never been to ‘your town’. But I have been privileged enough with this job to go to a lot of your towns and see the insides of your museums and markets and bars, not just the boardrooms and Business districts. And my town IS better than your town.
The problem is that London’s ‘better’ is no longer ‘good enough’ to justify the Faustian pact that you enter into when you top up your Oyster or sign your next Assured Shorthold Tenancy. The rent’s too damn high, the tube doesn’t work, it rains a lot; at rush hour it feels like a seething, stewing brooding ball of thinly suppressed resentment. You feel tough because you are part of it. As a do-eyed newcomes you suck it in and after 18 months call yourselves a London ( you’re not…just FYI… if your teen years involved being ferried by car to friends houses, then you just aren’t). If you grew up and/or started your professional life, anything else feels like a holiday, a dilettante indulgence. An unreality. Working 60 hour weeks in Singapore, I still felt like I was on holiday. I felt guilty. I rode my bike every morning. I read the weekend paper on the beach. I took a clean, seamless underground rail network to work that cost 35p a single journey. (Singapore is NOT expensive if you have lived in London; the Economist cost of living index is skewed by always including car ownership. Which is ridiculous as there is nowhere to drive and a Taxi all the way across the island is little more than a tenner) Singapore is in particularly stark contrast and I have my own reservations and thoughts, which remain in those unposted articles for the same reasons that they outline within them (consider the ‘message in the (lack of) medium’ in this instance) but my ex is in Glasgow now working as a neurosurgeon and she lives in a beautiful central neighbourhood in a two bed tenement flat for little more than her share of our old London rent. There is an art school, some museums, a vibrant music scene, great restaurants, local produce, Whisky. But every major city has some of this. And by major, this is not about global Alpha cities. There is a beauty amongst the Betas too. Yes, of course its easy to cling to the idea that London is better. Because it is. Better clubs, better galleries, better plays, better parks (that one is debatable) attracting better global people, forging better global links, hosting better businesses. But are any of these good enough to justify the structural issues. The creaking infrastructure and its vast expense? The lack of housing, exacerbated by (irony or ironies) Singaporean dentists and Russina Oligarchs alike buying flats as a new class of Global bond asset.
Unless I become a dotcom millionaire, I can’t see myself ever being secure and settled (and that could mean long term tenancies, not just ownership) in my hometown. Either you work in finance, are part of the global super-rich, or you persuade your parents to give you the deposit you have no chance. Raise your hand if you own in London. Good. Keep it raised if did this WITHOUT family money. Great, anyone left? Okay, and now keep it there if you don’t work in FS. Anyone there? Hmmmm…..
So the tense, (un)holy trinity at play here….’Variety’ (of people, things, everything), ‘possibility’ and (I am loathe to admit) ‘money’ made London, as I knew it, possible. Now money is choking out the other two. It is turning London into ‘London™’, a theme-park city that starts publicizing its own myth as ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ whilst forgetting what made it able to claim that. This is of course where I get accused of being one of those inverse snobs who is anti-nice things. I am not against change, I am against displacement. When Londoners don’t feel that there is a London for them. That everything that the city creates is as (a)overpriced, and (b)designed with a certain audience. These young, upwardly mobile, easily bored 20 and 30-somethings (and their middle-aged imitators), have the economic leverage to suck the air out of anything that isn’t an ‘artisnal’ ‘pop-up’ ‘street food’ ‘warehouse’ ‘craft’ crap-monger. This dystopian village is some way off, but it starts to look like whether by accident or design, that is the position that London will come to occupy in the global firmament. And to me, that isn’t London.
I know this second point is new and probably needs more explanation, but my train is pulling in soon, and any cogency of thought that I may have had is collapsing rapidly. This theme park London thrives on a confidence trick that supports the Cultural Ponzi Scheme that is ‘Greatest City on Earth™’ as well as an actual ponzi scheme that is the housing market (purchase and rental). I worry Theme Park London is far too profitable to be stopped, and will soon be ‘too big to fail’
If I were a braver man, I would work in a planning department of the GLA; I would join a think tank or work in social research. But I am a coward. So I am running away from home for a few years. It will always be home. I just don’t know if I will recognize it.
The City as Social Network
The Internet is going to save us all.
Or some would have us believe…
Urban life is increasingly being defined by technology. But then again it always has. The exurban sprawl of the great American (non) cities built for the motorcar. The civic monuments to capital of the North if England, secular cathedrals to the dark satanic mills. Defining tools have shaped our environment, built it, formed it, transformed it and deformed it.
There are two defining features of our current Urban environment, the Internet and surveillance culture (isn’t that one featured? Ed. (Snowden). Between them, they are killing the city as we know it.
The city is the original social network. Economic realities drove most of the last 13,000 years of civilisations push towards urban living, particularly during the worlds industrialisation and after, but what it created as well as a concentrated workforce for the factories was the first social networks. The move to cities created zones of free exchange, where information travelled as fast as the speed of sound. It widened gene pools, allowing people to find partners that weren’t their cousins. It brought wider competition, co-operation and collaboration, creating new ideas, inventions and intrigues. Urbanisation started revolutions and undermined religions. Driving all this is one key idea, the thought in which the power of cities lie- it is the reason that despite the pollution, the lack of space and the expense people flock to them- Serendipity.
The concentration of so much difference creates a space for the unexpected- rubbing along so closely with a panoply of other creates sparks. It is the connective tissue that links the Roman Forum and Greek Agora to Speakers Corner and Leicester Square. And it is this same cord that is being cut while we sit glued to our smartphones.
Web evangelists will tell us that the world is shrinking and that we are now all connected- one global village. Social networking gives us the proximity of the polis with global reach. We exchange ideas tout tweet with Lagos and La Paz. But both us and our neighbours are narcissists, recycling the same stale thoughts in an intellectual echo-chamber with all the fresh theoretical air of plane cabin at the end of a long-haul flight. Those we friend or follow are on the most part flattering reflections of pieces of ourselves- rather than holding a mirror to the world, we hold one to ourselves. Same school, or same university or same political affiliation or hobby, the wider our reach the narrower our encounters- as paralysed by choice we return again and again to the same 2 news sources, or the same 3 blogs or the same 5 sites. The links that get shared with us come from those who share our privileges (or lack thereof) and also share our prejudices
The internet is an inferior alternative to the city as a truly powerful social network- it is a useful auxiliary, but lacks that one thing that the built urban environment has- Serendipity.
At the same time, Serendipity is being removed from our cities. Gated communities, CCTV and privatized public space are undermining what made cities so powerful while we settle for an inferior alternative. Local pubs close and we pick partners based on their proclivities through Match.com rather than locking eyes across the bar. New developments gate nervous yuppies into identikit flats in Canary Wharf, fenced off from the deprived wards of the Isle of Dogs and Poplar. CCTV culture makes us wary of strangers on a street at night, whereas human company in fact means safety. We have never lived in a safer time, yet perceptions of criminality has been increasing steadily- those with the highest security dwellings are the most fearful and believe it has worsened the most. New ‘quarters’ create branded zones in towns which give the illusion of public space, but manned by high profile logo-ed security guards, these areas are blanded, with the high-viz brigade moving on anyone who doesn’t conform to the profile that that fits their area’s image. The chance of the unexpected is being systematically removed from the built environment at a time when we need it most. Cities have never been less genuinely creative or more lonely.
We pay a vast premium to live in these cities, yet so many of us choose to shut ourselves off from so much of what they offer, staying within the comfort zone of an inferior alternative, rather than using it as an auxillary it to agitate for public space, mixed zoning, social housing.
Me old China, you’re the Drama Queen
There is a school of thought that suggests judgement on China Mieville’s essay on ‘apocalyptic London’ should be reserved until Monday, when a longer version is posted to the sensationally-titled website www.londonsoverthrow.org. Depending on the thread that the ‘extended version’ navigates this may be a response to bad editing on the part of the NYT rather than the author. But with a URL like that, one would imagine that breath-holding isn’t advised.
Mieville’s authorial flânerie through contemporary London seems at once both melodramatic and undirected. The essay is bookended by public sector protests and ends with an excerpt from an interview with Lionel Morrison which he uses as a device to cast a tone over the whole of what has gone before. That in itself is misguided as the two quotes from Morrison and weaved together with a consummate storytellers deftness of touch to add a new intentionality that seems it is the authors as opposed to the interviewee’s.
Morrison doesn’t sound despairing. But he does sound tired. “Every time you do something and nothing goes any further, it eats at you,” he says. “It starts this bitterness.” It can break people down. Make them hopeless, or worse. When none of their efforts to improve anything work, some, he warns, will stop fighting. They will say, “Let us just wait for things to — for chaos, really, to take place.”
In fact, the question is whether the second quote comes from Morrison at all or one of Mieville’s shadowy half-formed pseudo-literary characters that seem to guide us through his London. David Lindo, the ‘Urban Birder’, is twisted to imbue London’s Fauna with portents of the cities impending decay. According to Mieville, of London’s wild parakeets, he ‘eye’s them with dislike’, yet there is no word from his source that even intimates this. The dislike is instead authorial, in order to pick up where the fox, ‘agent of animal chaos’ leaves off, with a ‘flock of feral parakeets’ across Wormwood scrubs. Mieville could have chosen Richmond park, which has a significant parakeet population, but that frankly may have rang with the wrong kind of poetry.
In what we must assume is an intentionally disorientating gallop we take in Cameron, the Mittals and the Olympics, Boris Johnson, the two sides of Tottenham, the Riots, via a quick pop at the Guardian, before launching into ASBOs, Islamaphobia and the new far right. Still with me?
Mieville offers little insight on any of these. Instead we are given heavily coloured observation that moves Op Ed into a new territory of creative license. He manages a primary-school level jibe, ironically the least eloquent part of the piece at the Guardian’s ‘reading the riots’ a relatively heavyweight piece of sociological research, but simplifying the conclusion to the point of absurdity.
What they discovered, through extensive research and interviews, was that what motivated many of those on the streets was resentment of the police and a deep sense of injustice. Eyes roll with the duh.
The parts where we are offered something approaching constructive comment is elementary, though it is somewhat lost amongst the literacy insensibilites. Lack of new council houses and resulting flight of the poor to outer London=Bad. Multicultural London=great from a culinary point of view. Far right parties= do well amongst disaffected groups in a recession. At this point as a reader, you can feel ones eyes beginning to ‘roll with the duh’. He goes on to touch upon deaths in police custody, but not before he has drawn a cheap comparison between last years riots and 1981 in Brixton and 1985 in Brixton and Tottenham.
The disturbances of the 80s had a shape and direction that was lacking and there were social immediacies that were being addressed, (especially with regard to an even more strained race relations landscape) albeit in a very imprecise and extra-legal way. The problems now are of the same nature but different in character, though this is not the place to go into it, (though it would make a great comparative follow-up to FailToPlan’s undergraduate thesis on 1981 in Brixton).
The critique of the changing nature of housing in London is particularly irksome as the return of the middle classes to central London and the associated investment has meant that London has steered away from the path that at its most extreme version is represented by US donut cities such as Detroit where flight from the centre has left the heart torn out. It is in fact London’s increasing inner city rents and inability to build more social housing that is symptomatic of this move back to the city from suburbia. No doubt if the net flow was the other way also, Mieville would still be criticising.
Perhaps there is a question of audience. Published in the New York Times, the piece gives the impression of a steam-punk maze, a disjointed fantasy landscape where foxes roam wild on building sites and global near-future tournaments are built on old industrial sites for the entertainment of the violent masses by a privileged cabal who run government, desperate to keep the citizens from looting and rioting out of sheer boredom and wanton destruction. Which is probably exactly what you want to hear abut London if you are New York. The reality, at least in my opinion is very different, and my own thoughts on New York, here, reflect actually the ways in which London has developed and changed in a way that the its big sister across the pond seems unable to do, trapped in cultural aspic as a paean to the 20th century. Mieville’s dystopian London is a great story, and part of me can’t wait to read the book. Just make sure you file under fiction.