London’s burning.Far be it from me to offer some kind of topical, personal insight into the goings-on in Old Smoke. I’m about as far from London as it’s possible to be without falling off the British map; I’m not at all fond of the place and anyway, I’m hardly an up-to-date newsy kind of a chap. The truth is I’d much rather the world got on with its darker pastimes out of sight and, consequentially, well out of mind.
It struck me late yesterday afternoon, when locals were still tweeting about looting taking place on the roads below and the flames they could see billowing just up the street that my sister, who lives in London, might be in some danger. I don’t know how big London is – ‘pretty big’ seems to be the consensus, although compared to the rural villages I often visit Plymouth’s a pretty big place as well. My idea of what constitutes a large city is somewhat skewed by my immense dislike for them, and the way I try to avoid them whenever possible. I’ve been within spitting distance of New York more than once without the slightest inclination to leap its saliva-drowned bays and visit the Big Apple herself – and even New York looks fairly small from a distance. I put that deception down to downtown Manhattan looking like a bunch of Kryptonian crystals rooted at the water’s edge, clustered so tightly together that when seen across the Upper Bay they give the impression that’s all there is to New York, that they’re all that’s worth bothering with. This impression is reinforced by all the movies and TV shows containing dizzying camera spins amid the neon glow of Times Square, or helicopter shots skimming low over the skyscrapers. There’s a whole new world of culture, life, good and bad over there, but all that’s visible from the Newark turnpike are those glassy silver spikes pounded into the ground. They’re the first things I think of when Sinatra belts out ‘New York, New York’. They’re the dreaming spires the entire world knows..
I have no such images of London; my views of it are – perhaps – a little more balanced. I know London of olde – Westminster and Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament – and new London – the Gherkin, the Millennium dome and wheel – nestling like parasites to leech from it. On the occasion I hear from my sister and she says she’s picnicking in a park between Goldes Green and Hampstead Heath, she might as well be sending me postcards from a fairy tale . . . but I know there’s more to London than just gingerbread cottages.
It helps having shows like Eastenders which are set well away from tourist attractions in squalid places nobody would wish to visit. It helps to think of these neighbourhoods as being fenced in by a hundred similar places; that maybe – if you weren’t knifed along the way – you could walk for days without ever finding yourself at the Big Ben bell-tower.
Knifing’s always an imminent threat in London. Those reading who’re laughing right now are Londoners battle-hardened to to its violence: they’re used to the underground, Oyster Cards, Harrod’s sales and pick pockets. They can spot tourists from the way they walks, roll their eyes when someone mentions Oxford street shopping and think nothing of cultural parades or flashmobs or festivals erupting about them because they live in London, and London has earned its civic entertainment. “Don’t be so wet,” they say, forgetting they know how to blend in, how to avoid eye contact and not to stare when some spiked punk atrocity gets on the train and urinates on the seats. They know the city so well they’ve forgotten which areas are best avoided; they’ve not used certain roads for so long they’ve fallen off their internal maps.
“London’s fantastic. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It makes every other city in Britain feel slow.”
You could live on a motorway and say exactly the same thing.
London’s burning. It’s an old song taught in schools; a nursery rhyme describing the blaze that swept across seventeenth century London. London’s part of British folkloric tradition: Dick Whittington and his cat, London Bridge is falling down, Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clemens. I and innumerable other children were born in Britain beyond the tolling of the Bow Bells yet we still grew up with these songs – perhaps even you know some of them despite being raised even further afield.
This mythological status persists today. Britain’s a small country, but dense. Accents and cultures shift in mere miles. We all have our own ways – and our own news.
But watch the nightly news broadcasts and you’d never believe this is the case. Precedence is always given to London – the densest part of the country, the blackest hole – because there’s always something happening there. It’s like those newsreels from the sixties, back when London was the fashion centre of the world: “London is hip. London is now.” Everything worth mentioning happens in London, within sight of the studios reporting on it. London is a Mecca to which everyone must come. Have your photo taken at The Strand. Buy a Union Jack hat. Get stabbed and bleed into the Thames. London is happening.
And my paranoid worst-case-scenario suspicions might be amusing to some of you Londoners but watching the weekend’s events doesn’t paint a pretty portrait of ‘happening’ London. I’m not going to pretend that Plymouth doesn’t have its own ills, and there are certainly places here I skirt when navigating the city – but when we have violence and filth rises from the sewers to swamp the streets, it’s not a cultural event.
We have theft, but not looting. Not balls-to-the-wall violence and vandalism. Not ‘it’s been ages since we last had a fight; let’s get stuck in’ brawling. Not wanton disobedience and destruction, not because we want to raise hell, not because ‘fuck the pigs’ – not because we are London, hear us roar.
There are people on my Twitter list who are very scared right now – and these are Londoners so they don’t scare easily. Home of rats and plague and hellfire, the people living there watch from their windows and pray the flames of dissent don’t lick their way. Streaming police and rioting mobs tangle and these scared, decent people watch, stood still behind their curtains, not moving, not wanting to draw attention. As surely as if the Thames had risen to flood its streets, London – hearty, exhilarating – has turned on them
I don’t believe there’s a greater political machination at work here. I don’t believe this is anarchic vengeance. I don’t believe anyone throwing bricks and bottles, stealing TVs or starting fires is doing what they’re doing out of anything but malice. This might be a very small town point of view to have, but when I see city dwellers scared to set foot outside their homes I can’t see any good in that. This is terrorism committed by a population upon itself. For all the free festivals, high street shopping, nightlife and balmy picnics in St.James’s Park, this is London as ever it was. This is life in the fast lane, careening out of control.
London’s ablaze. I hope to God you all make it through unburned.