Last September amongst the faded vine wrapped quiet of a Tuscan farmhouse, I found a copy of Bernard Crick’s biography of Orwell, something I’d wanted to read for some time. With my wife entering the heavy phase of pregnancy, it was a lazy break with much time spent on the veranda, coffee or beer to hand, the sun crawling through the sky, the book open on my lap and my thoughts dipping between Lancashire, Catalonia, Burma, Paris and London.
Eight months later as the rain lashes against the cottage in the middle of Scottish nowhere and with the views of the Loch below, from whence the water runs to the sea and the Isle of Skye until the ocean beyond, I find myself thinking about Orwell again. After the Second World War, Orwell retreated from London life to the remote island of Jura, supposedly because the air would be good for this ever-worsening tuberculosis, but also, I suspect, because he needed to the free of the city to write his masterpiece, 1984. A novel with a world of beautifully realised, so distinctly different from ours yet where the evolution of it was evident, had to be constructed in isolation, away from distraction and poor influence.
It was surely no burden. Surprisingly, for a writer of his generation, Orwell never seems to have particularly liked London, and it shows through his novels like Coming Up for Air, where the nostalgia for disappearing small town rural life is rife. He was never Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene or any dozen others, separated to an extent by class (certainly by money) from many of his contemporaries, London’s charms were likely to be indistinguishable from, say, Wigan’s.
At one point, around the first half of the century’s first decade, I could see myself being like Orwell: resentful of London, but feeling saddled with having to live there. It took me a long time to come to love the city, for many of the reasons everyone else who comes and tries it for a while leaves: it takes ages to get anywhere, it can be busy to the point of suffocation, every little thing conspires to drain your wages away, the people are unfriendly, it isn’t interested in you. It is easy to find yourself trapped between spheres, unable to know where you fit in. Most of the bright young graduates moving to London to not join a bank find themselves on generous yet not ridiculous salaries, unable to fit with the monied ruling class who swank about town in taxis, drink cocktails in the most fabulous bars and somehow live just off Kensington High Street, or in Bloomsbury like it is still the 1920s. Nor do they have much in common with those they are likely to live alongside, the people who are just normal in the city: those who work in shops, on the tubes, in normal offices in places like Tooting and Bromley, Acton and Romford. Sure, there’s the artistic underworld, but even if you can get a ticket in, you are likely to find yourself sneered at for having to work rather than dedicate yourself to your creative muse.
It took me many years to get beyond all that, and to find myself comfortable in the city, at ease with myself, with friends living nearby, looking forward to the occasional hour long tube journey as an opportunity to read, and I began to fall in love with its wonderful reality rather than the facade most casual visitors see.
And yet, in the past couple of years my relationship with the city has become strained. We no longer get on quite as well as we used to. There are times when we just won’t speak to each other, and neither of us can really remember what sparked to the spat.
And, to a large extent, it is all Boris Johnson’s fault.
In 2008 when Johnson emerged as the Conservative candidatefor London Mayor I wrote a snidey, mean-spirited blog about him. At the time I was trying to post every singleweek and had yet to find my voice for these things, such as it is. It wasn’t a terribly well written piecelacking a central argument beyond the unoriginal insight that Johnson is just ashowbiz chasing moron. I didn’t think he stood a chance against Ken Livingstone, indeed I almost didn’t vote. Time on the day almost ran out, somehow, and I had to run to the polling station, not that I thought it matter that much.
Implausibly, he won.
Johnson is a “nasty piece of work”, as the BBC JournalistEddie Mair described him, who it seems will do anything to gain a moment in thelimelight. He appears devoid of principles as his flip-flopping around whether to be pro or anti-Europe and whether he would contest a Parliamentary seat in the 2015 election show. Both decisions are much more about his aspirations to be prime minister than any concrete ideology or wish for public service. Privately he has been, allegedly, describing himself as bored by being London Mayor, once one of the top political jobs in the country and something he has manage to whittle down to an irrelevance while he focuses on the day job of promoting Brand Boris. Somehow, despite his management through absenteeism, the most diverse city in the country voted in a blonde, blue-eyed Eton boy, twice, and he is now mentioned seriously in any discussion about potential leaders once David Cameron steps down sometime before 2020.
Perhaps the most staggering thing about Johnson is his unashamed cheek. During eight years in the mayor’s office he has latched himself onto numerous projects, often triumphantly proclaiming their success, none of which were started by him. The bike hire scheme, so associated with him it is commonly referred to as Boris Bikes? Instigated by Ken Livingston. When the East London line extension opened in 2010, Boris rode the first train into Dalston Junction, proudly waving a Union Jack. The work had commenced years previously with the final phase resulting in the closure of the existing line in 2007. Anything Olympic related, from wafting another flag atop of red double -decker bus in Bejing onwards? London secured the right to host the games in 2005 and the vast majority of work was already underway well before Johnson hitched himself to it.
His actual achievements are generally rooted in failure and corruption. His restored routemasters introduced to replace the perfectly serviceable bendy-buses have a tendency to overheat in summer and cost significantly more than the original forecasts. The hyped-up super cycleways are not only less extensive than promised, but poorly maintained, insufficiently segregated from traffic, frequently confusingly signed and with a tendency to disappear at major road junctions creating safety issues where ill-prepared riders find themselves thrust between an articulated lorry and a plumber running late. Often they are little more than a smear of blue paint on the tarmac. Johnson likes to portray himself as a cycling champion, whizzing down from his Islington home to City Hall, pausing to scream abuse at taxi drivers, but really it is all just part of a media image designed to highlight supposed quirks which make him a “laff”.
The new river crossing, the Emirates Air Line cable car which links the North Greenwich Peninsula with Canning Town, two points already conveniently linked by the Jubilee Line, is a £60million tourist attraction no-one visits and locals avoid – much like the planned Green Bridge could become. That scheme seems to be proposed as both privately owned and publically funded, with security guards intended to keep people moving amongst the flora and fauna. It whiffs of scandal before a single foundation has been bored.
What he can be said to have achieved is to fundamentally change the horizon of London. Walking through one of the South East’s many parks atop hills the view into town is different. Before 2008 one could easily spot the clustered towers in docklands and the scattered few in the centre of town, the Gherkin, tower 42, the old post office tower, centre point. Now, not only is the financial city packed with staggeringly high towers, but so is Wandsworth, Battersea, Lewisham and most other town centres. The air above our heads is getting packed with glass and steel, much of it not actually needed, empty office spaces and flats somehow acuminating value, all of it actively changing the look and feel of the City, some of it determined toattack the people who built it, like some sci-fi version of a seventies’ disastermovie where concentrated sun congeals into a laser like focus on the streetsbelow.
But probably Johnson’s most serious failing is his lack of moral perspective. This is after all someone who had a rival beaten up for money, although that was before he was mayor, and beat up a Japanese school boy. He seems to never miss an opportunity for some cringeworthy gaff that endears him to people who think politeness is over-rated while really acting a cover for his own narcissism and inexplicable belief that he is somehow deserving of the highest offices. Probably it is how, under his watch, London has started to lose its soul.
So, the housing crisis isn’t directly Johnson’s fault, but it has happened on his watch and the curious by-product of the traditionally more affluent areas of London becoming ghost towns, places where the global elite park millions of pounds worth of bricks alongside their Maserati, is the surging gentrification and transformation of everywhere else. Gentrification is, of course, just change and places like Brockley are just returning to their affluent beginnings: grand four storey houses are scrubbed up and returned from flats to single occupancy, but with it comes CCTV cameras and high front hedges or locked gates to keep the rest of the neighbourhood out. Previously the last affordable bastion of affordable zone two London which few could find on the map, now we see a craft beer bar opening followed by yet another deli or coffee bar and me meeting people in Cardiff talking about it as somewhere their cousin who works in advertising aspiring to move to. In the wake of every new business something else has to close, maybe the fancy dress shop, or the paint merchants, and with their disappearance goes the livelihoods of the people who worked there. The new businesses aren’t for them, they’re for the new people.
My wife mocks me, pointing out I am claiming affection for a society I was never truly a part of. I might have chatted with grave diggers and sparkies and alcoholics and gardeners while pumping bar, but I was doing a masters degree at the time. But she misses the point: yes, I do like the better choice of drinking venues, the nicer and more plentiful restaurants, and not glancing over my corner when crossing open spaces after dusk, and at the same time I worry about where all the people who were here before went. For everyone I know locally who I like, there’s someone else, a pop star or an investment banker, with whom I struggle to relate. These are the people who move somewhere and then start demanding change to fit their idyll, it inch towards the places they have been economically kicked out of.
If you liked it enough to move here, stop trying to turn it into something else – if only because it rarely works. It seems that for every non-chic site - be it a garage, a carwash, the sorting office, the technical college, the office furniture retailer with sporadic opening hours – there will be calls for it to be closed and replaced by a gym, a Waitrose, another restaurant, a high-end butcher. The garage I always used was forced out by increases to land rents and then the property put up for sale. What have we got in its place? Some one and two bedroom flats and a Sainsbury’s Local to complement the one a few hundred metres away over the railway tracks.
I think Johnson is emblematic of how London has shifted over the last eight years. It feels a bit more of a selfish city. It feels like it is interested in only helping and being for those of a certain sort. It feels like it is only slumming it in zone two, in the Mayoral office, until something grander, more prime ministerial comes along, and it will stop at nothing to get there.
So it is with relief that Johnson is gone, at least from local politics. But there’s a risk that we’re about to replace one blonde buffoon with another. Okay, maybe Zac Goldsmith doesn’t wear the same facade of being a drunken simpleton, but he brings with him the same sense of entitlement, the same self-serving policies, the same aloof disparity for ordinary people as Johnson. The son of a billionaire whose only job outside of politics was as editor for a magazine owned by his uncle, Goldsmith is running a vile campaign, following Lynton Crosby’s usual strategy of flinging the equivalent of a dead cat on the dinner table every day. It gets people talking about the dead cat, even if it turns out to be a fake, but then you move on to the next moggy’s corpse before anyone has time to ask what you were doing with a dead cat in your jacket pocket in the first place. It might win elections by keeping youropponent on the defensive and persuading the public of their, real or imagined,faults, but by using Sadiq Khan’s religion as a divisive issue and throwing outunsubstantiated accusations of association with extremism it is nasty, petty,and lacks for moral fortitude that real debate instils in worthy winners. We can do better. We can be better, surely?
The clouds dissipate as my son goes to sleep and my wife heats up soup. The sun is warm through the windows. The mountains become clear again as though emerging from a fog of disillusionment. Maybe we should run away to the countryside. Maybe we should abandon the city to its own, self-induced mess. But Orwell didn’t see 1984 as a judgement, but rather a warning. Perhaps we should see Johnson’s reign of the capital in the same way. If you want a fool in charge, you get eight years of stagnation and nothing. Instead you can have something else, something better. Maybe the clouds will lift and the light of hope and inclusiveness will return to London. Maybe, and for the time being I’m not giving up on my home.