As the final results of the 2012 local election were tallied and reported, London was the place to be. I hadn’t planned nor scheduled it this way: it was a mysterious happenstance that meant that just before Boris Johnson’s re-election as Mayor was confirmed, I was making my way back to my hotel in the shadow of the Tower of London. I was arm in arm with my other half; we proceeded slowly, burdened by fatigue from a long journey and devouring a tastily carnivorous if overpriced meal at an American barbeque restaurant. The loving marriage between American Samuel Adams lager and a pint glass perhaps hadn’t helped matters. Sleep had entered my eyes, the compelling gravity inviting me to shut out the world. Everything seemed to be beckoning me to get to my hotel room as quickly as possible, and lay my head down on the crisp white pillows.
We passed by 10 Trinity Square just as a distant clock struck a quarter to midnight: with tall Corinthian columns and a massive bare breasted statue carrying a ship’s wheel which represents maritime commerce, it’s a deeply impressive structure. I found out later that it was the headquarters of the Port of London Authority. It was also the site for the inaugural meeting of the United Nations; it looked like a citadel of global power.
Further along Trinity Square, there was a more modest structure; part of it was in brick, the other in stone: the legend on its sign read “Trinity House”. I knew from my old book of flags that it had been issued its own standard at one point in its history. Its banner wasn’t flying that night, but nevertheless, the building too spoke of importance: The Corporation of Trinity House still has responsibility for lighthouses and provides expert navigation for ships in Northern European waters.
Grand, imposing, historic. However, as we crossed the street on our way back to the hotel, a stench arose, possibly from one of the storm grates. My other half let out a small exclamation of surprise and disgust. We were glad to get past it: it was as if the city itself had terrible flatulence. Not long after, the Mayoral election results were announced and Johnson gave his victory speech. It would be tempting to find a cosmic alignment in these two events, but nevertheless it is just a coincidence. It is less of a stretch to say that something is wrong: yes, London is a big city and a great city. In one day, I went from Bradford to Leeds: the latter has more modern buildings and developments than the former. Then I went from Leeds to London, and the two are worlds apart. London heaves, bustles and there are more opportunities there than in most parts of Britain. Yet it also constantly seems on the edge of bursting, as if it is a balloon with air molecules colliding at an ever faster rate underneath its placid surface. At some point, it’s reasonable to assume that the thin membrane of order must burst.
There are many points which could give way. London’s transport and sewage systems were initially designed and built by 19th century engineers like Joseph Bazalgette. Bazalgette was a genius, but how could foresee the demands of the future, e.g., the home with 2 bathrooms or more, power showers, people dumping moldy takeaway curries down the loo? As of today, the London is home to nearly 8 million people; include the metro area and the numbers rise to 13.8 million. The Olympics will bring hundreds of thousands more to the city: posters on the Underground warn about changes to travel patterns and one poster (humorously, I think) suggested that pole vaulting might be an alternative means of getting around the city. This speaks of a system under enormous strain.
It could be that poverty makes the bubble burst. Last night, my other half and I passed a homeless woman outside Waterloo station. She wore a hoodie, or rather, the remnants of one, and sat on a collection of plastic bags as sort of a mat. She had a pit bull with her, either as just a companion or also for the purposes of personal protection. A light rain was falling; not a pleasant spring shower, but a cold, almost autumnal drizzle. She had gotten to the point where she was barely asking anyone for change; if she did, I didn’t hear her. Beside her was a placard for the Evening Standard, which read “Boris Heads for Victory”.
Generally speaking, I’m reluctant to give money directly to the destitute. Charities, yes, the vendors of “The Big Issue”, absolutely, a food bank run by the church, certainly – but directly to someone on the streets, no. My other half works for a food bank, and personnel there are advised not to give cash, as it may exacerbate people’s problems. Nevertheless, my other half gave her £10. The young woman receiving the cash didn’t say “Thank you” or greedily snatch it up: she looked up with deep, sad eyes. The bags underneath were red; she looked as if she hadn’t slept in a very long while: rather than take the money, she replied with a weak “Are you sure?” My girlfriend insisted, and shed a few tears as we headed off. After all, we had a warm bed and crisp white sheets ahead of us; all that young woman had was the rain and the cold, with her dog as perhaps her only solace.
Because I visit London infrequently, changes are very noticeable to me: for example, passing through the newly refurbished Blackfriars station was probably more of a surprise to me than for people who live in the city. What I noticed most of all, however, was the substantial increase in the numbers of homeless. Again at Waterloo station, I saw an enormous man in a tan jacket dragging two shopping trollies: he was conversing with two sellers of the Big Issue, asking how he could become a vendor. It seemed an unlikely job application: the stench of cheap alcohol from him was overpowering, his words were slurred and disjointed, he wobbled on his feet rather than stood his ground. To make matters more complicated, he was blind. Not too far from there, polished Rolls Royce and Maserati cars are parked serenely near Old Bond Street: surely the tension inherent in this paradox is not sustainable?
Of course, London has shrugged off disaster before. It endured the Great Fire of 1666, German bombs and terrorist attacks; perhaps this teetering on the edge is always going to be part of its character. But there are bad times and better times; I remember when I first moved to London in the late 1980’s. While the Underground was still as ropey, the city felt safer, less tense and less intense. I could be out very late and not feel worried at all. This is not the London of now: perhaps instead of being a world apart from cities like Leeds or my home town of Bradford, it can be called a distillation. London has concentrated most of Britain’s problems into one crucible: inequality, poverty, despair, crumbling infrastructure and leaders which cross the border from ridiculous to dangerous. In his victory speech, while parts of London reeled due to the city’s flatulence, Johnson said to his constituents, “May the Fourth be with you.” It was actually May the fifth by the time he said it. In the shadow of the Tower of London, in times like these, buffoonery is unhelpful. It may be all that we can expect.