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.