This isn’t the blog I planned to write next. I’ve been working on an extended piece about education, as well as some reflections on media and advertising, but I was in London earlier today behind King’s Cross station, an area I’ve watched go through a complete transformation in the last few years, and found myself interestingly depressed by what surrounded me.
London has made me in many ways. My love of cinema started on the London Underground, where as a child in the 1960s I was captivated by posters of films I thought I would never see, particularly Hammer horrors (I’ve seen them now). It’s funny the details you remember: escalators with wooden treads, or the ginger reek that transferred with the dirt to your fingers if you ran them along the wooden window sills of the red-liveried tube trains.
I’m not a complete fool for nostalgia. I started writing this on the high speed train that can hurl you from St. Pancras to Folkestone in less than an hour. It’s all plastic and metal in the carriages, no place for the traditional smells of wood, but this seems fair enough given the transformation of distance that the service represents (even if it is depressingly overpriced). We need to attend to the loss and gain. There’s something undoubtedly thrilling about seeing a departure board that places “Sevenoaks” alongside “Paris” as possible destinations. All the same there is a grim symbolism in the transformation of St. Pancras station: if the grandeur of the larger Victorian stations made them the cathedrals of the industrial age, it seems depressingly appropriate that the regeneration of St. Pancras’ public space should have been built around the imperative to encourage shopping (and bourgeois shopping at that), a cathedral to consumerism.
If all this seems predictable enough in the changing light of England’s capital in the last ten or fifteen years then on reflection I suppose it is surprising that the derelict industrial wasteland behind King’s Cross should have survived so long as undeveloped space. But when I lived full time in the capital, through the 80s and early 90s, it didn’t seem so unusual. London was more affordable then, and one of the things that defined its character was the cheek by jowl presence of the scruffy, dirty old places alongside the tidier realms of the better off, the persisting, engrossing sores of old London pressing through the manicured flesh.
What’s happening behind King’s Cross now manages to be both breathtaking and disheartening. I imagine there will be some good buildings among the new, with names like David Chipperfield all present and correct, but it’s becoming hopelessly corporate, and yuppie corporate at that. You can stand on the Marylebone Road as I did earlier, the growing presence of this gleaming stuff all around you, watching the set faces of the ordinary folk going home on the buses sweeping past, and it’s hard not to feel that they are participating in all this as serfs tilling the soil around the castle. I have always loved London, and still feel more at home here than anywhere, but the incursions of City wealth and the non-dom super rich are changing it for the worse, everything cleaned up and decked out in deathly tastefulness to gratify those investors‘ sense of what is due to them, and in the process it’s feeling increasingly detached from life in the rest of the country. I don’t think it was like this when I lived there, and it’s a dangerous thing for the political centre to be this way.
But I guess in all this it’s a kind of symbol, because the wealth that’s generated here primarily through financial institutions is itself largely detached from reality, money feeding on money.
These are unreal times. Today I stumbled on a piece written a year ago by a Conservative economist in the Huffington Post about the big lie at the heart of the coalition government – the lie that Labour was responsible for our economic mess, and that only the coalition partners could sort it out. I guess it’s not so surprising that these political minnows should cling to their enforced narrative. What’s depressing is the nakedness of the technique – so every minister or junior minister will parrot a phrase about having to contend with the “Labour deficit” at every opportunity. Have people believed this lie? Strangely the people who have most seemed swamped by it are in Her Majesty’s Opposition. There are communication consultants (aka PR people) who believe that if you repeat a lie often enough it will be accepted as true. I don’t accept this cynicism, but if the coalition lie has had some success, that’s because the Labour Party seems to have been paralysed by the fact that they play by the same rules, and so have let this travesty of the recent past go unchallenged. This is the most bizarre political feature of our times, and looks to make the next election as unreal as anything else going on.
In the meantime, it seems I have to watch my beloved London go to the self-pampering dogs, intent on ripping out its old soul for their gated, unchallenging enclosures. Many of them are the people who actually caused the “Labour recession”, and they sit untouched in their towers while the rest of the country groans under the burdens of ideologically imposed austerity. George Romero’s Land of the Dead nailed the quiet monstrousness of this behaviour. I’d probably have liked the Underground poster for that film too.