This article orginially appeared here.
An old quote attributed to Dr Samuel Johnson is “A man [there were no women in those days] who is tired of London, is tired of life”. The contemporary re-write should be; “A man or woman who is tired of London, is tired of sweaty commutes, crap public services, overpriced food and rude bastards deaf to the world because of their overpriced Beats headphones.”
London is a toilet, everyone knows this. However, it’s a fascinating toilet with lots of cultural goings on, which tend to cost either nothing, or the wealth of Solomon. After spending a day in the city, I always breathe a sigh of relief as my train, packed with other grey looking members of the suburban bourgeoisie (who usually are quite literally tired of life, if they ever did enjoy it), strains its way out of the station – or sits, stuck at signals, creaking under the weight of decades of insufficient infrastructure spending.
London is only one small part of the UK, but it’s a bloody important small part. Generally, I would contend that whatever cultural, social, economic and political currents sprout up in the city on the Thames will tend to spread there way across the rest of the country, like fungi spores. These ‘spores’ sometimes even make their way to Norfolk.
Whenever I visit London, I feel that I’m visiting the future. It may be a future befitting a fairly mild dystopian novel, but dystopian nonetheless. The thick booted foot-fall of police on the pavement, police helicopters overhead (drones soon, surely?), gaggles of homeless folk, an underground warren of tunnels which poor souls spend much of their waking lives shuffling around to make a dollar for The Bastard Corporation and quite possibly, a sighting of the Queen – or Gary Barlow – something not even Winston Smith need fear.
Having said that, those of us living outside of the capital can learn from the city in a number of ways.
First – we can see that immigration and a mix of ethnic groups living side by side needn’t be a problem. People from all over the world can get on in a cockney cum Somalian cum Polish cultural melting pot and not regress to a state of raved barbarism (as many a Tory backbencher would have us believe). This is something the Royals could learn from – strength in genetic and cultural diversity, perhaps. Possibly the only reason to argue against mass immigration, is for the benefit of those relocating to our capital – do they know they’re assigning themselves to a life of workfare in Tescos under the political tutelage of a be-mopped Conservative absurdity in the shape of Boris Johnson?
Second – Protests can, and should, be a regular feature of urban life and where possible, big. It doesn’t matter if you and your mates organised the SWP Swindon branch to protest the military industrial complex on Chutney Street, protests should always involve more than 7 people. London is very good at big protests. These range from the annual packed-lunch jollies of the TUC, angry student tuition fee demonstrations, as well as the slightly more gritty riots of summer ’11 and Brixton twenty-five years prior. When did you (or for this article in particular, I) ever hear of thousands of fiercely passionate students waiting out a police kettle on a freezing January night in Newcastle (if this has happened, apologies to our Geordie comrades)? Never, that’s the last time! London is a key ‘hub’ in the neoliberal global political economy. Therefore, the pressures (including on its inhabitants) and contradictions of such can be felt there long before the same contradictions make themselves known elsewhere. Politically, this makes London an interesting and disturbing place of contestation for all kinds of battle, from economic inequality to the continued hold of patriarchy. The battles taking place there will need to be fought elsewhere.
Third – why doesn’t every city capitalise on the local nutty family to attract tourists? It’s sure as hell worked for London. Every year millions of tourists shuffle up to the gates of Buckingham Palace to get a good Facebook profile picture of them looking whacky next to a bloke in a fury hat, just because an oddball German family lives beyond the gates. Aside from this being merely one sign of humanity’s cultural and intellectual malaise, it could translate into a goldmine for any middle sized British town. Let’s take Dudley for the sake of our example. Instead of slapping ASBOs on, and vilifying, the trouble family living on the worst estate in town, why don’t the good people of Dudley put them up in a stately manor (or the biggest Premier Inn) the place has to offer, guarded by ‘troops’ dressed in the most outlandish costumes possible. A stern looking TA soldier in a 6ft hat with feather boas streaming down the side of it? You won’t be able to beat the American tourists off with a shitty stick.
Fourth – The London Olympics were a huge success. That woman ran round that thing in like 10 seconds. No one got to see her win, as it was all over so quickly, but it was definitely the feel good story of the year. George Osborne was even booed by thousands of people during one of the medal ceremonies. It’s victories like this that bring communities together.
In light of this, why limit the Olympics to London? Why only every four years? As Sky Television and the Premier League have proven, once you get a successful sporting ‘product’, you can flog it so hard and so long that the metaphorical dead horses’ corpse turns into liquid gold. Or something. So, who else is in on ‘Ipswich 2013’? What kind of boost to the country’s GDP will ‘Peterborough 2014’bring? Can we ‘inspire a generation’ (as the London 2012 tagline proclaimed) of Chesterfield residents? Not only would such events offer an opportunity to improve the nation’s sporting prowess, but they’d also be a means of experimenting with new off-the wall ways of outsourcing to private companies. Do the athletes involved really need to throw the javelin, or should they just do the training, then hand it over to a G4S ‘operatives’ who do the throwing for them? It may lead to parliamentary inquiries when a record number of spectators are injured, but these are the inevitable teething issues we should expect when ‘rationalising’ the wider economy.
These ‘thoughts’ and recommendations of what we could learn from our capital may sound like they’ve been written upon a keyboard located within a ‘secure facility’ for the mentally unbalanced now, but in a decade, they’ll read like prophecy. Possibly.