Made in the USA? Letter From London
The ironies of the New Labour project were legion, but an especially rich one was how, in the run-up to the general election of May 1997, Blair courted pop musicians born and based in London, such as Damon Albarn of Blur, whose work singled out for scorn the very country Blair sought to emulate. Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, was originally called England vs. America, which made allegiances clear, and Albarn was not alone in having become tired of the dominance of American music, grunge in particular. The April 1993 cover of Select magazine carried a photo of Brett Anderson from Suede in front of a Union Jack, with the headline “Yanks Go Home.” But Albarn has always made it clear that his antipathy to America is a matter of taste rather than moralism. Recalling an early US tour, he said: “Fun pubs really annoyed me—they just rip everything out and replace it with plastic. I saw it coming over, and I started to write songs about it.”
If Albarn diverged from Blair about the adequacy of English culture and traditions, he shared his concerns about “education, education, education.” But when Blair sent his oldest son, Euan, to the London Oratory, a Catholic school in southwest London, rather than to a comprehensive school near where they lived in Islington, Albarn concluded that Blair was a hypocrite and said so to the press. “I got a letter from his office saying ‘don’t talk about that,’” Albarn recalled. “Which is why, when they got in and there was this five minutes of thanking everyone who helped promote him, I didn’t really feel like I was part of [it].” Liam Gallagher, the lead singer of Oasis, wasn’t interested in Blair’s victory gathering at 10 Downing Street for different reasons: “Why would I go there? I’ve got nothing in common with any of them. Don’t know anything about politics, don’t want to. Looks like a shit house anyway.”
Blair knew that he could exploit some of Britpop’s associations but not others. It helped his contention that Britain was “a young country,” and London a cool city, but he didn’t need to accept any of the more specific allegiances. In English life, London is all-important—it’s Manhattan and Washington and a lot of other things too—and the city Blair sought to evoke was a place not of ruffian independence, but one where things were happening. It mattered greatly to Blair that he be seen as a conductor rather than a tagalong.
Adam Gopnik, who visited the city to write about “Blairism” for Tina Brown’s New Yorker, later recalled that “the spirit of May, 1997” was “almost Kennedyesque in its exuberance and willed innocence.” At the time, he suggested, very plausibly, that Americans find the city exciting “because we think America is exciting.” One of New Labour’s London legacies, along with the euphemistically named “public-private partnership” that ran the London Underground from 2003 to 2010, is the existence of what some call “an American-style mayor,” an executive position with no legislative powers. Its current occupant, Boris Johnson, was born in New York and loves the city, though not so much that he could resist taking advantage of Hurricane Sandy to bury the news of price hikes to his bicycle hire scheme.
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Iain Sinclair is mostly oblivious to calculated acts of Americanization, and he seems incapable of distinguishing between the politically pernicious and the gaudy. During a stroll along the South Bank, recorded in Ghost Milk, he spots a picture of William Shakespeare, “high-domed, full-cheeked…advertising tours on the side of the Globe Theatre,” and labels the scene “Heritage London.” But the reconstruction of the Globe has a particular story—it was a project, led by an American actor, Sam Wanamaker, and carried out mostly by American contractors, which aims to flatter London in a way that most Londoners claim to despise. Later, Sinclair writes of the “Funfair London of Ferris wheels and Japanese fish tanks,” but he doesn’t explain that the Sea Life London Aquarium is based in the old County Hall, former home of the Greater London Council until Thatcher’s government abolished it and sold the building off to a company based in Japan. The privately funded London Eye, on the other hand, offers a view of the whole of London and is in no sense an act of revenge by a powerful government against a popular but vulnerable local body. All the Globe and the Eye have in common is that, like “ethically sourced coffee,” “eco-boats,” “air-miles academics” and “wired joggers,” Sinclair happens not to like them. All tackiness is to be disdained equally, as a scar on a city that used to be uncouth. “The opium dens of Wilde, Conan Doyle and Dickens have been replaced by dockside bars with awnings and heaters,” Sinclair complains, in one of many sentences that leave you wondering what exactly he wants for and from his city.
Ghost Milk belongs to an unabashedly subjective genre of London writing, which on the surface overlaps little with a more traditional, sturdier approach. Sinclair identifies the two approaches as “the empirical and the poetic,” with “poetic” being used to cover the prophetic, mystical, Gothic and psycho-geography subgenres defined by one critic as “M25 flânerie and exurban poetics.” (The M25, the subject of Sinclair’s London Orbital, is a circular freeway.) If Samuel Pepys stands at the head of one tradition, William Blake presides over the other. (Certain writers, Dickens among them, have dual citizenship, Our Mutual Friend being notably less “empirical” than David Copperfield.) In this arrangement, Sinclair knows where his allegiances lie, and his confrères include his collaborator Chris Petit and his heroes J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, all of whom feature in Ghost Milk. Will Self is described as a “literalist,” which must be some relative of the empiricist. Peter Ackroyd, the biographer of Blake, Dickens, Shakespeare and the Thames, is said to straddle the border. But even if Self tests theories, as Sinclair charges, and Ackroyd has a soft spot for dates and place names, they are really city poets, as concerned as he is with “the mystery of how a city works.”
There was a memorable clash between the two tendencies in an episode of the popular BBC radio series In Our Time, recorded to coincide with the publication of Ackroyd’s biography of London in 2000. The presenter, the Labour peer Melvyn Bragg, is himself a novelist and historian who believes in archives and clarity. He made no secret of his struggle with the other—poetic—approach.
Bragg: Iain Sinclair…you and Peter are very fond of being metaphorical about London…. How far do you take this?
Sinclair: It struck me that if you are doing what Peter has done, writing a biography of a city, you actually need this, in terms of the drama of a narrative. I think what works wonderfully well about doing a biography of a city is that the city obeys the same rules of good fiction.
Bragg: Well, it does if you make it do.
Later, Bragg again tried to elicit a respectable argument from Sinclair, or probe the mystic refusal of one. “Do you really believe that certain areas of the city are now unlucky?” he asks. “Yes,” Sinclair replies.