Made in the USA? Letter From London
One day, when the queen is dead and Dickens is passing an irrelevant anniversary and the approach of an Olympic Games is consuming funds and space in some other world city, historians engaged in recovering the spirit of London during its greatest post-imperial moment of chauvinism and triumphalism will have no richer resource than the Evening Standard. A tabloid-format newspaper, the Standard—as it’s usually known—has existed in various forms for nearly two centuries, and continues to exert an influence. Ken Livingstone, in his recent memoir You Can’t Say That, suggests that his years in charge of the Greater London Council and, later, the Greater London Assembly (the mayoralty) would have been smooth sailing if it weren’t for the Standard, whose owners, the aristocratic Rothermere family, detested his socialist politics. At the beginning of 2009, soon after the mop-haired, fist-raising Conservative Boris Johnson, with Standard backing, displaced Livingstone as mayor, the Rothermeres sold the paper. The timing might have looked convenient—that is, suspicious—though annual losses as high as £25 million might also have influenced the decision to sell.
The new owners, the Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny, wasted no time making changes. They got rid of Veronica Wadley, the paper’s editor for seven years, and replaced her with Geordie Greig, a literary journalist who had been editing the society magazine Tatler. The paper was given a colorful new design and renamed the London Evening Standard. (In a previous, short-lived experiment back in the 1980s, it had been called the London Evening Standard.) More contentiously, the shake-up was accompanied by an advertising campaign dubbed “Sorry” that apologized for the negativism of Wadley’s editorship, even though by bashing Livingstone’s London she was mostly following orders from on high.
Of course, an editor working under owners at peace with the incumbent mayor would find it easier to produce a paper that was, to borrow Greig’s terms, “celebratory” rather than “doom-laden.” That advantage has paid off. What the paper lost in skepticism it gained in vibrancy, and readers followed. (In October 2009, its fifty-pence cover charge was dropped, with great success: the paper soon realized higher advertising revenue and cheaper distribution costs.) A year and a half after the Lebedev purchase, the Conservative leader David Cameron formed a new coalition government. And the prime minister, along with the mayor of London and the new editor of the Standard—all in their 40s, all educated at Eton and Oxford—set the tone for discussion of the city; their view was that London had regained some of its confidence after the torpor of the second half of the Blair years, during which the Lonely Planet guidebook had referred to it as “a joyless, decaying place.”
The novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones has described the Wadley-era Evening Standard as a “hotbed” of “populitism”—a mode of discourse that “voices highbrow concerns with a tabloid immediacy, in a tone that is never more reassuring than when apocalyptic or disgusted.” Soon after Wadley’s departure, assistant art editor Norman Lebrecht, identified by Mars-Jones as the “populitist’s populitist,” walked out, or was eased out, taking his peccadilloes with him, and making way for the straightforwardly populist Lebedev-Greig regime, which would present London as, at the very least, busy and relevant—and at most, something to eulogize, often in global terms.
In the two and a half years after Greig took over, the paper quoted, paraphrased or offered on its own account the view that London had become, among other things, “one of the cigar capitals of the world,” “the gourmet capital of the world,” “the diamond capital of the world,” “one of the war criminal capitals of the world,” one of two “plastic surgery capitals of the world” (the other being New York), “the cocaine capital of the world,” “the financial capital of the world” (with much of the financial services industry based in the Docklands, the onetime “squatter capital of the Globe”), the “e-capital of the world,” “the party capital of the world,” “the electric car capital of the world,” and “the world’s number one destination for foreign sports stars,” as well as the world’s capital of “dementia-friendliness.” The last phrase came in the wake of a portrayal of the syndrome in The Iron Lady, a film about Margaret Thatcher (from the makers of Mamma Mia!).
Greig moved on in March 2012—to edit the Mail on Sunday—and was replaced by his former deputy, Sarah Sands, under whose editorship the paper has stayed the course. (It has touted London as “the brewing capital of the world,” “the international billionaire capital of the world,” “the divorce capital of the world” and so on.) In the 2012 mayoral election, round two of Johnson vs. Livingstone, the Standard, none too surprisingly, backed the Conservative candidate. Three months after returning to office, on the morning after the Olympics’ closing ceremony, Johnson described London as, or as feeling like, the “capital of the world.” And soon after that, Johnson’s Life of London, a lifeless history book intended to publicize his campaign, was reissued with a new, told-you-so prologue (“we discovered that we could after all put on a great show”); a new epilogue on the runner Mo Farah, who won gold medals in two Olympic events; and a new title, The Spirit of London, carrying connotations of, among other things, the Blitz.
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The image that Johnson, Greig and others have been trying to create is one of London as central and centripetal, an object of other cities’ envy. There have been times when this was unquestionably the case, and not so long ago either. Londoners still have a feeling of warm-weather giddiness about the tail end of the government of John Major, when the Tories were hemorrhaging votes in local elections. It was a period defined in memory by the Turner Prize (Damien Hirst’s sheep won in 1995), a Spice Girl in a Union Jack dress, the TV program Fantasy Football League, and the Savile Row postmodernism of fashion designers Ozwald Boateng and Alexander McQueen. The soundtrack was provided by a musical movement known as Britpop, which somehow included bands both Northern and Southern, androgynous and laddish, wonderfully parochial and abstract, nationalist and embarrassed by nationalism, engaged and indifferent, university-educated and barely literate.
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.
The Olympics have served as the occasion or excuse for a new shelf (for those who have long shelves) of books if not exactly about London, then with “London” in the title. “Authors have stored their projects up for this moment or rushed them through, publishers’ catalogues showcase their metropolitan olympians and booksellers’ windows stack London titles high,” the historian Jerry White wrote. As the author of London in the Eighteenth Century, published in England last year, White could be said to know whereof he speaks, but he was publishing his serial history of London long before the bandwagon passed through. The same cannot be said of the authors and editors of the majority of recent books concerning London in various epochs and contexts. A giant compendium of verse about London, edited by Mark Ford, was published to coincide with the Cultural Olympiad, which was the umbrella for several other projects, among them the documentary film London: The Modern Babylon, directed by Julien Temple, whose every archive clip and music cue could be guessed ten minutes in advance.
Little of the work published to coincide with the Olympics or the Jubilee was ambitious in anything other than scale. A book such as Nick Barratt’s Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs offers 500-plus pages of detail while remaining, as John Carey noted, “unspeculative to a degree seldom met with outside railway timetables.” Most of the novels published about London, by writers such as John Lanchester (Capital) and Martin Amis (Lionel Asbo), recycled at greater length talking points gleaned from headlines and op-ed pages. There was certainly no work of fiction that grappled with the city in the way that Fielding or Dickens or Conrad or, in their earlier work, Amis (Money, 1984) or Iain Sinclair (Downriver, 1991) had; and among the nonfiction books, there was no successor to such graceful rummages as Paul Cohen-Portheim’s The Spirit of London, Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s London: The Unique City and V.S. Pritchett’s London Perceived. There has mostly been a fact deluge, with no narrative or focus to curb or control it.
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At least Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk offered the excitements of rage, bile and unorthodox sentences (some with no verbs). The book is an addictive and maddening first-person survey of the effects of Grand Projects like the Dome in Greenwich and the Olympics, and was first published in Britain in the summer of 2011 and in the United States in 2012. For Sinclair, the government tyranny necessary for the execution of Grand Projects (or GPs, as he puts it) is a desecration of the London he loves, with its disorganized communitarianism and gift for democratic gradualism. Sinclair’s previous book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, a “confidential report” on the London borough where he lives, made repeated reference to the coming upheavals, and repeated attempts at trying out the new book’s terminology: “the grand Olympic project” sucking resources, “the tainted illusion of the Grand Project.” In Ghost Milk, Sinclair picks up the same story a little further down the line, at a point when its visible markers are even harder to miss, and alternates the unfolding portrait of Hackney with excursions to Beijing and Berlin, among other places, to see how wrong GPs can go.
At one point in Ghost Milk, Sinclair explains that in 2008, a planned launch event for his Hackney book was scuttled by the local council:
The poor librarian deputed to give me the bad news kept insisting that it was not her fault, there was nothing she could do, orders from above…. I took it as a tribute, after all this time, to be thought worthy of being invited to leave the premises. It’s a tough act to get yourself banned these days and I had pulled it off three months before my book was even published.
Sinclair may have taken the cancellation as a tribute, but he also hoarded it as evidence—indeed, as no less than a confirmation—of his suspicion that “ugly truths were being concealed behind the Olympic smokescreen.” One adviser had argued against the ban, but the “advice was spurned in the thirst for retribution, making it clear to malcontents and naysayers that they would be up against the wrath of an all-powerful bureaucracy, happy to be in agreement, for once, with central government.” What emerged, thanks to the efforts of two journalists working for a self-funded free newspaper, the Hackney Citizen, was that the order came from the mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe, a man sarcastically praised by Sinclair in Ghost Milk’s dedication as a “constant inspiration, as he remakes the borough of Hackney as a model surrealist wonderland.”
A significant part of this surrealist wonderland is the Olympic Village, and though Sinclair can be negligent when it comes to explaining causes, his descriptions are brilliant and unappeasable as arguments. At one point in Sorry Meniscus, his book about the Millennium Dome, completed in 1999, Sinclair asked, “How could you acclaim a people’s park that was guarded like a penal colony?” In Ghost Milk, he again shows that when governments embark on populist ventures, it isn’t long before they call in private security to protect boundaries, block access, ban photography. As Sinclair sees it, there is certainly an Olympics legacy, and it isn’t pretty. “In boroughs affected by this madness, the 2012 game-show virus,” he writes, “long-established businesses closed down, travellers were expelled from edgeland settlements.” The Hackney marshes were turned into concrete car parks, and a spokesperson for British Waterways, the organization responsible for introducing new mooring fees ten times higher than the previous rates, explained, “We have to send the message that in future, living on the river will not be such a cheap lifestyle option.”
Broadly, the aim was to “monetize” an area previously known for philanthropy, affordable housing and underdevelopment. “By 2012,” Sinclair speculated, “there will be no perceptible difference in techniques of control employed in war zones and in homeland development zones: making the world a safer place for shopping.” He is referring in part to the vast shopping complex that was built in Stratford in time for the Olympics. But London has always been a place for trade and exchange—in 1711, Joseph Addison, a founder of The Spectator, called it “a kind of Emporium for the whole Earth”—and Sinclair risks sounding merely reactionary when he complains about these mercantile pursuits.
The chapter in which Sinclair tells the story of his canceled book launch ends with him encountering a neighbor who tells him, “It’s going to kick off very soon, mark my words, just like the ’80s.” (There were riots throughout the Thatcher years, usually in response to mistreatment by the police or the state of ethnic minorities or the poor.) Sinclair doesn’t say whether this prophet was an expert in urban history, but there is a strong connection between government interference—and lavish royal weddings—on the one hand, and rioting on the other. The August 2011 eruptions that Tina Brown described as a “sort of Clockwork Orange…scum-of-the-earth kind of uproar,” were closer to a cry for help.
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If the last few years have marked the height of the storm, then this one might offer a somewhat calmer vantage point. In July, Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory will be as distant to us as it was from the 1945 election in which Clement Attlee won a Labour majority and introduced a series of reforms that built the foundation of the welfare state. Speaking a few months after Attlee’s election, the historian A.J.P. Taylor said that the few Europeans who believe in “the American way of life—that is, private enterprise”—are a “defeated party,” with no more of a future than the Jacobites in England after 1688. It wasn’t to be the case. In broad terms, thirty-four years of social democracy have been followed by thirty years of Thatcherism, defined by the Conservative politician Nigel Lawson as “free markets, financial discipline, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian values’…privatization and a dash of populism.”
Although Lawson doesn’t explicitly mention the Thatcherite taste for centralization, he might have included it under “firm control over public expenditure,” because the local councils were thought to be profligate. But in reality, centralization was an offshoot of privatization: not of public assets (“selling the family silver”) but of public spaces. Thatcher despised local government all her life, and when it came to sorting out the notorious “inner cities,” she passed legislation that took power away from the elected, often Labour-dominated local government and gave it instead to Michael Heseltine, her secretary of state for the environment, a blond-maned magazine publisher who thought that the profit motive concentrated the mind far more effectively than any notion of public service. (The year 1986 would prove a symbolic one in this regard, with the abolition of the Labour-led Greater London Council and the passing of the Financial Services Act marking a transfer of power from left-leaning local government to a deregulated financial economy.)
One of Heseltine’s early acts was to place selected areas under the power of Urban Development Corporations, quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations—as ridiculed in Blur’s song “Mr Robinson’s Quango,” written after a visit to Thatcher’s hometown—that would be run by appointed, right-leaning businessmen and “free,” in Heseltine’s words, “from the inevitable delays of the democratic process.” The aim of the exercise was to create “new towns in old cities,” though these new towns didn’t always comfortably accommodate the people who had previously lived there. One of the first UDCs operating in the capital, the London Docklands Development Corporation, transformed a part of the failing East End into what another leading Conservative, Norman Tebbit, called “Manhattan-on-Thames”: the glinting business district and photogenic advertisement for the enterprise zones known as Canary Wharf, now home to more than 15 million square feet of office and retail space, as well as three 200-meter-plus skyscrapers. The urban historian Sir Peter Hall pointed out that the underlying concept of the UDCs was “the American one of leverage,” with public investment used to kick-start projects that would then attract private investment. Anna Minton went further in Ground Control, arguing that a whole “culture of authoritarianism and control” had been “imported” from America, and that English cities were being remade according to “an American approach.”
The borrowing, for a different climate, of ideas developed in America was just one of the habits in which New Labour followed Thatcher, whose true heroes were not reformist Victorians but monetarists of the Chicago School. Blair and colleagues like Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and the late political consultant Philip Gould all took study trips to the United States during Labour’s years in opposition, bringing home with them such terms as “reclaiming the public realm,” “the war room” and “the third way.” Whatever the problem—whether it related to domestic policy or “image”—America, and usually Clinton’s Democrats, offered the solution. Blair the “presidential” prime minister had his own version of the Arkansas Mafia, unelected advisers whom he consulted obsessively, among them the former diplomat Jonathan Powell, holder of a new position: Downing Street chief of staff. It was baffling for old Labour politicians to see their younger colleagues not just aping American policies but also striking American poses. Ken Livingstone recalled (with a dodgy grasp of chronology) that the New Labour “apparatchiks…were obsessed with American politics…preferring to watch The West Wing than question Denis Healey and Tony Benn about how to handle problems with the civil service.”
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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.
Contemplating the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the plans for regimentation designed by Christopher Wren and others, Sinclair says: “Of course, it doesn’t work out because London doesn’t work that way; it always has to be chaotic, and bodged, and a bit of this and a bit of that.” At which point in the segment, the third guest, Claire Tomalin, then working on a biography of Pepys, made one of her rare comments, pointing out that the people whose property was burned in the fire still owned the land and were reluctant to give it up, even for the pleasure of occupying more rationalized urban spaces. “The beautiful plans that were made for enlarging the streets and changing the pattern didn’t happen because of a quite simple practical fact,” she said.
Tomalin is drawn to the example—the practical fact—where Sinclair wants to connect it to other instances of failures to tidy London up, of which there have been a great many. But different vocabularies and attitudes aside, Tomalin and Sinclair are essentially in agreement. Everyone who writes about London, whether inclined to the poetic or empirical, on the left or the right, finds more or less the same city, and stresses more or less the same point. London developed haphazardly and continued that way; it has rarely benefited from central planning and often frustrates large-scale projects; it is the messiest and least monumental of great cities; it is foremost a mercantile and capitalistic space in which the arts, at intervals, have also flourished; its people have a sense of belonging, even cohesion, despite their status as strangers.
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The city’s inhabitants tend to play a significant role in London propaganda. Sicinius’ line to the Romans in Coriolanus—“What is the city but its people?”—is at risk of becoming as unavoidable as Samuel Johnson’s “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” with romanticism about London’s inexhaustible riches often giving way to romanticism about Cockney market stall holders and gentlemen in bowler hats (and their modern equivalents, whoever they may be). The Shakespeare quote is used as the epigraph to both Boris Johnson’s The Spirit of London and Craig Taylor’s Londoners, a book that differs in every imaginable way from the mayor’s crude Whig history.
Taylor’s book starts, in its brief opening chapter, as a contribution to the vast literature of the immigrant or outsider, of which Boswell’s journal remains the classic. Taylor, who was born in western Canada, recalls his early days in London, though a reference to “eggplant” rather than “aubergine” shows that a decade on, he isn’t completely assimilated:
I looked at people’s faces on escalators for a second too long, lurching around with an eggplant-colored backpack without any sort of grace. I hadn’t yet become an urban otter—one of those sleek Londoners who move through the city with ease, as if passing through warm liquid. They’re the ones who seem slow and graceful but are always covering ground; who cross streets without looking back and forth; who know how to fold a newspaper crisply in the middle of a packed Tube train.
Much of this would be true of any city, but Taylor also writes about his experiences on the No. 159 bus and on Holloway Road, and most of the book is taken up by interviews about unique and irreducible aspects of the city with those who “love it, hate it, live it, left it, and long for it.”
Londoners doesn’t give the impression of being a cynical calculation. It was published in England a year before the Olympics, and its author-compiler had been wrestling with his interview transcripts for a long while before that. But Taylor was nevertheless aware that his book would be entering an already crowded field about to become more crowded, and he sets out his store with a mixture of cautious modesty and canny niche-finding: “There’s no point in trying to out-Ackroyd Peter Ackroyd, out-Sinclair Iain Sinclair, or cram in more sheer fact than Jerry White’s histories of the past two centuries.” Taylor writes that he “came to feel that there was a different history…and I took the opportunity to set down the voices with whom I shared the city.”
This other history, the history of day-to-day megapolitan life, often goes unwritten. But Taylor chases the kinds of minute and ephemeral details available only to social history conducted in the present tense, and the result is a book that anyone with an interest in London might read with gratitude. The book comprises interviews with about a hundred people—among them an estate agent, a social worker, a personal trainer, a chef, an “eyewitness to the London riots” and, perhaps most brilliantly, Emma Clarke, “voice of the London Underground”:
They couldn’t decide how to pronounce Marylebone, whether it was MAR-le-bone, Mary-le-bone, Mary-lee-bone, or, most bizarrely, Mary-lob-on. So I had to voice all alternatives. I think they chose Mary-le-bone…. I have a fondness for all the names, I really do. I suppose I especially like ‘Piccadilly Circus.’ I like the rhythm of it. My favorite is ‘Theydon Bois’ (thay-don bo-is).
Another interviewee, Tim Turner, who works for a bank, sets out his vision of ”Londin,” to distinguish the city where he lives from the place depicted in, say, the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary:
I’m not living in a London of big pleasures and tourism and Russian billionaires and Saatchi Gallery and the London Eye, but in Londin…. It’s a bit shit in Londin, but there are little pleasures, like walking very quickly and listening to my headphones; like the taste of that ready-made pasta they sell at M&S, with chunks of feta the size of miniature golf balls; or like the big southbound platform at Angel station. There’s so much room on that one platform. I was there the other day and I thought to myself: Why did they make this platform so ridiculously big? It’s wonderful.
The purpose of Taylor’s book is to convey, using the form of a panoramic collage, the ordinary, pragmatic city, strewn with pigeons, marred by bad weather, and all but invisible in the majority of London books. His characters aren’t really interested in legislation, but they unavoidably register its outcomes. The accuracy that a book like this can achieve is of an impressionistic kind, and in testimonies such as that of Emily Davis, identified as a “cyclist,” casual observation goes straight to the heart of the matter:
My husband and I went for a bike ride round the Olympic site the other day. I find it impossible to believe that London will be capable of achieving all the things that the Olympic committee are pretending it’s going to be able to achieve. And I don’t mean the Games themselves, necessarily. I’m sure all stops will be pulled out and the Games will be fine and they’ll be efficient and they’ll work and there’ll be a lovely opening ceremony and there’ll be a lovely closing ceremony and nothing terrible will happen….
I think London will continue to muddle on and some things will work and plenty of things won’t work, and somehow that combination of the working and not working is what gives it a particular energy and a particular life…. This combination of not being able to get everything to work that we say will work seems somehow to give it an energy that makes it more appealing perhaps than a well-run, efficient city. I mean, if you’re always striving for success, you end up with something like America, and nobody wants to be like America, really.
Last year, Leo Robson wrote about symposia and scholarship of Henry James.