Letter from London (Unpublished '97)

London, as you may have noticed, has a buzz again.

“London — The Coolest City on the Planet,” cried an article in Newsweek last November. The resurgence of London fashion, the explosion in the city’s polyrhythmic club scene, as well as the new local architecture boom were all cited by the magazine’s trend spotters as proof of the English capital’s regained edginess, calling the city a “hip compromise between the non-stop newness of Los Angeles and the aspic-preserved beauty of Paris, sharpened to New York’s edge.”

“London swings again!” chorussed Vanity Fair two months later in a long, bubbly paean to London’s newfound cultural virtues. The lavishly illustrated article featured photos of such flag-wavers of the new Brit chic as Noel and Liam Gallagher, the battling brothers of the neo-Beatlish pop group Oasis, artist-cum-publicist Damien Hirst of dissected and mounted cow fame, and fashion gurus Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, the brash new sovereigns of the Paris-based couture houses of Givenchy and Dior, respectively captured in diverse, suitibly cool native habitats.

Was it the heady week last August when cutting edge coutoutiers McQueen and Galliano had simultaneously been summoned to Paris by Dior and Givenchy to inject those weary workshops with much-needed British flair? Was it the unveiling the following month by Norman Foster, the reigning megalomaniac of the London architectural scene, of his proposed, monstrous 92 story Millennium Tower — which, if erected, would be by far the tallest edifice in the capital, not to mention all of Europe? Was it the release by the Ministry of Sound, a leading London dance club, of its own compilation/compact disc put together by its in-house DJs — something of a musical milestone? Was it advertising mogul-cum-collector Charles Saatchi’s commissioning of a sculpture by artist Marc Quinn of his own head — to be made of his own blood plasma? Was it actor Tom Cruise’s decision to build a second home in suddenly swinging London? The pundits quibbled. But all were agreed that London’s moment had come. London was calling on the world’s spirit again.

The London press, so long starved for good news to report from the capital, avidly joined in the ballyhoo. “In London we have something that is being restored to world class ranking,” declared the Sunday Times. “The city can boast a cultural renaissance who international appeal evokes memories of the 1960s, a fashion center coveted by the most select coutouriers, a financial sector that has bounced back with renewed vigor, and perhaps most surprisingly, a reputation for good food.”

London, so long on the defensive, so long in the shadows of its urban brethren, had, it seemed, found itself again. Nor was it all just hype. With a hive of arts and crafts employing over 600 thousand Londoners, the city would now boast the largest cultural sector of any European metropolis, as well as its busiest. Where else, as a recent issue of Time Out, the London listings magazine, trumpeted, could one find a theater featuring, on one Saturday, 119 different productions — or an area like the East End with an artist population of over 10,000?

Desperate for electoral ammunition in his against the odds fight to retain the prime ministership and keep his Conservative party in power for another five years, John Major was only too happy to junp on the London bandwagon. “With new confidence, style, panache, and dynamism,” the cheery prime minister chortled as he turned on the Christmas lights in Regent Street, “London is once again blazing a trail in fashion, music, food, design, and the arts!”

Major was justified in taking at least partial credit for London’s resurgence, founded as it was on Conservative deregulatory policies that had ranged from loosening the controls on bars and clubs, which had allowed a recrudescence in London’s once torpid nightlife, to, more significantly, unleasing restrictions on the capital’s once flagging securities industry, which had let to a resurgence of business for the City. As fiscal hub of the New Europe, London’s moment came in 1992, when, after a long period of jousting with its financial rival Frankfurt, the German bank Deutsche Bank had “defected” and relocated to London, bringing a wave of other international banks in its wake. Thus the City is currently headquarters to a whopping 520 banks from 70 different countries, as compared to Paris’s 280 and Frankfurt’s 250. Even Lloyd’s, which had gone ignominously into the red in 1993, was very much back in the black.

How much, it seemed, had changed since 1978, when writer Jan Morris, in assessing the character of London, had called it a “city between performances … stripped of its empire, neither quite part of Europe nor altogether insular … unsettled, unfulfilled, unsure of which role to accept next.” Now London has a new role, a double role in fact, as both cultural and financial capital of Europe.

Little good it did John Major and the Conservatives, though, who were annihilated by New Labor in the British general election in May, and all but thrown out of London by discontented voters; when the dust cleared, there were but two Tory Members of Parliament from Greater London.

Partly, to be sure, London voters had felt the same need for a change of government, after 18 years of Conservative rule, which had animated voters around Britain to take their chances with Tony Blair and his revamped party. But also, in their case, it was genuine fear of and anger at some real, less welcome–and less ballyhooed–changes in London’s character and complexion that had occurred on the Conservatives’ long watch. For, if London was blossoming, if one looked beyond the buzz, so to speak, one could see and feel that it was also breaking down. London’s streets, congested with both foot and motor traffic, were dirtier than ever. So was its air, which was as smoggy as Seoul’s, according to dismayed environmental monitors. Public transport, especially the Underground, once the pride of London, was in a state of advanced disrepair.

Much of the disarray could be traced directly to Margaret Thatcher’s spiteful abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986–it currently is an aquarium–and the subsequent failure to install any sort of coherant strategic, citywide authority. As a result, London has devolved, once again, into a collection of villages, which was all well and good–but for the fact that it was still a teeming, overburdened metropolis of 10 million souls with severe metropolitan ailments that urgently needed addressing on a citywide basis.

This governmental vacuum has made these ailments all the more difficult to treat with the city’s unprecedented tourist boom. A lot of people want to sample London’s buzz, as well as its more venerable sights–drawing eleven million people last year, in fact–and the city, as it is presently constituted, simply can’t cope with them. “It is not so much the number of tourists that is a problem,” said Neil McGregor, director of the overtaxed National Gallery. “It is, rather, the lack of a transport policy for London, as well as a public space policy that is causing the problems.”

Moreover, while Conservative policies may have allowed more talent to rise to the surface of the city–and more 60ish panache–they had also served to widen the gap between London’s rich and poor. There were more Rolls-Royces making their way through the capital’s constricted streets–but there was also more homelessness. Five out of England’s ten more deprived boroughs are locatedin Greater London; before the Thatcherite years the city only had two. More ominously, crime was on the rise–including crime between strangers.

To an observer like myself making his first sojurn in the Old Town since the late 70s, the new London did indeed feel like a more exciting place–but it was also, unquestionably, a rougher one whose Dickensian spirit hearkened as much back to the 1860s as the 1960s.

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