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 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.

Stagnating Cities and Rotten Apples

It was great to be in New York again, the last time I was there, it was only for 48 hours, coming down from Boston to meet a friend who had come up from DC for the weekend, blasting through town in taxis from party to club to brunch to bar. It was the ideal way to see the place, we had the living room of a friend’s hotel suite and use of a rooftop swimming pool, and everything seemed to happen in a ‘New York Minute’. This visit was a little longer and left me a little more time to contemplate the city.

It is an incredible place, one whose every street corner feels like a paean to bustling industry, the American dream, the great hope of immigrants to the new world, a shining beacon of the West and its fight and victory against the grey conformity of the Soviet alternative. Buildings as tall as mountains line every corner and a busy optimism that seems to urge in its actions the very inscription that is borne by the Lady who guards the harbour. It’s a city whose symbols are world famous, Liberty herself, the Empire state building, Times Square; a city that has been immortalised in song. But all these qualities support the sneaking suspicion as you walk round the place, the niggling feeling that after being the Beacon of the West, and symbol of Victory and the unipolar moment, that this is a city that has started huddling round its own myths, a place that has become reflexive, concentrating on its own legends rather than its impending obsolescence. By concentrating on what made it great, it is, ironically speeding up its own decline, underlining its position as what Steve Grant terms, ‘20th Century-land’. As Amsterdam embodies the 18th and Paris the 19th, so New York may be choosing to become an artefact for the 20th. The leitmotif of New York for the 21st? The destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings, the beginning of a very different reality. Strangely, the city now feels like a pale imitation of Shanghai, which itself was, whether consciously or not, originally aping the Big Apple.

I would argue that London, having had to accept the decline of ‘the West’ much earlier, with the collapse of empire and the inflated sense of ego it had historically provided coupled with the poverty that lay everywhere in the ruins of the Blitz, became a city, albeit through a very difficult half century, that is characterised by change and regeneration. The only place I have been that feels more fluid, more dynamic, is Berlin. Accepting that it was not longer the centre of the world allowed London to become a world class city. I am not saying that this is a process that New York will not go through- the signs of a dialectic around this are there in the Village, along the Highline, (though I would argue not in the hipster hangouts of Williamsburg) but there is a danger that if they concentrate on what was great, they may be in danger of not allowing that evolution. This isn’t helped by residents who move to the city because of these myths, some fictionalised ideal-type of ‘New York ‘and the ‘New Yorker ‘that they become, believing that on arrival their life must be transformed into a Jay McInerney novel (or for that matter, whichever other author and his myth-perpetuation that you have decided to buy into).

From a career perspective, I feel as though it is a developmental gateway through which at some point I must pass- a year or two in an agency out there, but I have other reservations about the city- limited social mobility through the knock-on effect of the lack of both health-care and access to culture (20 dollars for a museum!) and that public monuments are created by private men- Trump, Rockefeller, Whitney, Frick, Vanderbilt. (Yes, I know, Tate, before you call me out on it)

So to remain great, do not simply venerate what was great, those laurels will decay and so will those who rest on them.

In San Francisco, I was talking to a friend who has been involved in architectural projects for Apple. Designing an Apple store in Houston, the company has been adamant that the architects stick to the template for Apple Store designs- the light, airy, signature glass boxes that have characterised their retail experience. In the middle of the Texan desert. The store manager has apparently quipped that for every one iPad on the shop floor, they have three others that they cycle it with because they overheat and have to be swapped out and allowed to fully cool and recharge. It is an unpleasant retail experience and and unpleasant work environment – exactly the opposite end result to that which was intended by the stores design. When the process, rather than the result for the end-user becomes more important, you move from being innovative to being dogmatic. Just as apple’s closed system easy usability made it great, people now expect that usability with a greater level of customisation and use. What made it great is in danger of becoming a liability. But maybe dogma is okay if you are the Catholic Church of technology. Simply perpetuating what made you great in the past is no indicator of future success or relevance, for a city or for a brand.