Made in the USA? Letter From London
The arrival of new sensibilities in pop, couture and conceptual art coincided with the arrival of youngish, self-consciously forward-looking, extravagantly promise-making politicians who sought to persuade American journalists and not a few other people that London was the home of a distinct contemporary set of ideals. (Though in a way, this was nothing new: in 1966, Time magazine had identified London as “the swinging city”—with people saying ever since that London swung for about thirty people for maybe half an hour—while in the mid-1990s, the “Cool Britannia” moment was announced by Newsweek and duly covered in Vanity Fair.) It was a time of jubilation, partly about what was happening, but mostly about what was going to emerge: a post-Thatcher, post-Major utopia populated by politicized guitarists and guitar-playing politicians. It lasted until late 1997, with—depending on where you were standing—the release of Oasis’s bloated album Be Here Now or the revelation that the new prime minister, Tony Blair, part of the generation pledging to end political “sleaze” (the word appeared in national newspapers 3,479 times in 1994–95), had exempted the Formula One racing empire, run by the Labour donor Bernie Ecclestone, from the government ban on tobacco sponsorship. It turned out that, despite what people believed, Oasis wasn’t infallible and, as many people suspected, Blair was a cynic. Blair’s friend Peter Mandelson later assured a Silicon Valley audience that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (“intensely relaxed” doubling as an uncannily accurate description of Blair’s persona).
That short revival period remains a glowing touchstone in London’s recent past, showing that the capital can retain its appeal even as the country loses power and influence. The Lebedevs must have sensed opportunities being scuppered when, with an Olympics on the way, tourism at a high, the population growing and the cookery-sartorial complex in rude health, the city’s leading newspaper was complaining incessantly about misdemeanors at Red Ken Livingstone’s City Hall. Even Lonely Planet thought the city showed “glee.” Why hadn’t the Standard caught wind of this?
During the “Sorry” campaign, Veronica Wadley, taking full advantage of the Lebedevs’ nationality and overlooking their ownership of the bold, anti-Kremlin Novaya Gazeta (where the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked until her assassination in 2006), complained of a “Pravda-style promise of good news” by her former employer. But the reality has been more nuanced. The Standard is a local paper—even if the locality is a vast and varied one—and so inevitably there are pages devoted to openings, photo calls, and stories about neighborhood associations waging war with soccer stars over their home renovations. When the highly entertaining and dazzlingly parochial gossip page, the Londoner’s Diary—long considered the paper’s most important feature—won a National Press Award in 2012, the citation stated that it was “great for London.”
But it’s not as if a daily reader of the Standard would be shocked to discover, on turning to The Guardian, that London’s boisterous high spirits are in fact marred by illiteracy, knife crime, homelessness, transport chaos, growing inequality, a housing shortage and corporate tax avoidance. (The Standard works with charities, public funding bodies, and private companies on campaigns to help tackle a number of these problems—an acknowledgement of the city’s flaws which doubles as an attempt to do something about them.) It has reported bad news thoroughly and well, and continues to provide a platform for full-throated dissent—anti-populist, anti-elitist or both. During the first week of the Olympics, at a point when we were all supposed to club together, stop worrying about the cost to the taxpayer and cheer on Team GB, the columnist Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Standard, wrote that to talk of an economic legacy of the Olympics as “‘a publicity boost for tourism’…is mere state propaganda.” A month after the closing ceremony, he wrote, “There is no such thing as an ‘Olympics Legacy.’”
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The year 2012 was always going to be a tricky one for those Londoners who squirm when news anchors use words like “pageant” and politicians speak of “the people.” The causes of celebration were seemingly innumerable: the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, Dickens’s 200th birthday, the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones. The critic Michael Wood pulled off a miracle of English understatement when, considering the “wildly enthusiastic” reception of Sam Mendes’s James Bond film Skyfall in England, he wrote: “It’s not impossible that patriotism plays a part here.” There was patriotism, certainly, but provincialism as well—a feeling of excitement about London, where much of the film takes place. Perhaps the year’s most disheartening event was the mounting of a crude neoclassical memorial to the Royal Air Force Bomber Command at a noisy, tightly packed part of London, where Knightsbridge and Park Lane meet Piccadilly. But in terms of Londonitis—the yearlong, citywide fever whose symptoms included forced cheeriness, pandering whimsy, winky irony and disingenuous populism—the most characteristic symptom I noticed was an enormous banner, erected near Kensal Rise, the recently gentrified part of North-West London where I grew up, outside the offices of the smoothie company Innocent, on which were blazoned the words: “We’re chuffed to be the official juice and smoothie of the London 2012 Olympic Games.”
Throughout the year, straight talk was conspicuous in its scarcity. The government, national and local, heaped praise on itself—Cameron and Johnson would take credit for good weather if there ever was any—and most of the time the public and the media nodded along, especially after the successful executions of the Games showed that, in Simon Jenkins’s words, a “passably competent” nation with unlimited funds could put on a fortnight of sport. During London boom times, people are discouraged from letting reality undermine the pleasure to be had from appearances. Louise Wener, the lead singer of the Britpop band Sleeper, said that during the Cool Britannia era you couldn’t criticize New Labour “without getting slapped”—“it was verboten…so desperate was everyone to believe in the con that it was.” The writer Iain Sinclair noticed something similar during the months leading up to the opening of the New Millennium Experience, staged at the Millennium Dome in Greenwich: “the moderately under-enthused were denounced as party poopers and whinging lefties.” The low-level national debate about the Olympics left some critics feeling, as Anna Minton put it in an expanded edition of her book Ground Control, “unpatriotic, subversive even.” Minton’s words were published at the beginning of 2012; at the end of the year, Simon Jenkins pointed to “the vitriol visited on those who dared question such priority by a government that had spent the entire year telling everyone to tighten belts.” The naysayers were evidently not as lonely as all that, nor was it paranoid to suggest that too few questions were asked about the £9 billion of public money used to stage a series of events with restrictive ticket prices, some as high as £2,012.