Walking across Waterloo station last Saturday in the early evening gave me an eerie feeling of having popped a mind-altering pill about twenty minutes earlier. Rushing towards and then past me was an army of gargoyles variously guffawing, squinting, and frowning. Thin-lipped with tension, they dashed, veered, wobbled and sipped from what has become the ubiquitous water bottle. Everybody under forty carries spring water now, as if they might be the marathon runners or Tour de France cyclists of life….a life somehow made more frantic by technology and deregulated employment.
Their dress choice was variously inappropriate, scruffy, unwise, ill-fitting, poor quality, and at times oddly ascetic. But this was the preface to Saturday night, and every face radiated an anxious determination to enjoy.
How any of them afford what it costs to have the simplest enjoyment in London today eludes me. One station venue wanted £6 for the pleasure of drinking a glass of mediocre wine while seated on a scruffy bar stool. A 1-day travel card now costs £12. The tube journey from Elephant to London Bridge costs more than a taxi did when I gave up being a Londoner sixteen years ago.
My female friend and I had decided to make the Skylon bar-restaurant our pre-party venue in order, as she put it, “not to turn up inconsiderately sober”. The wine was excellent, the price outrageous and the noise level frantic, but the company was excellent – and she insisted it was her treat. I asked her when, in her opinion, London would secede from the UK in order to officially become a City State, and instead of looking blank she offered the view that it might well implode before Mayor Johnson had arranged for such an outcome. The conversation flowed effortlessly from there.
The knees-up was only a short stroll away. I’d been invited as a sort of thank you for really doing no more than my job, and had asked the previously virtual friend to join me. Some attendees were expected, others were a surprise. There was much talk of colon cancer, bladder operations and erectile dysfunction. Also some good gags.
We took in a light dinner and more wine, gave little bits of personal history away, and then went our separate ways. It was a good evening and stimulating in many ways, but I find myself freaked by London more and more: everything is being ‘improved’ (ie, developed), but nothing seems entirely real beyond the obvious
existence of two very different nations existing cheek by jowl.
The nation hurtling towards me on the Waterloo concourse earlier was very much the underpaid, unfulfilled 70% who have been so enlivened by Jeremy Corbyn sweeping into some form of power. I relate to them infinitely more than the materialist and maxed out plastic Surrey shower: but they are quite extraordinarily ugly in many ways, and look to me like lost souls already exhausted from plodding through the bollocks they’ve been fed by the media and education systems over the last three decades.
Exiting the Elephant & Castle well after midnight, I passed the by now familiar harlie haplin pub – one of many run-down and generally unprepossessing boozers I’ve encountered over the last few days. Here too, a divide of Grand Canyon proportions has opened up between the smart gastro-pubs frequented by the well-heeled, and the big-screen-footie, pool table and two-for-one lager dives where gastroenteritis is more likely than bon-viveur food.
My daughter (a professional expert on rising London areas) thinks Elephant & Castle is up and coming, but to my eyes it felt down and almost counted out. We all have our relativities, and to be fair the new ‘Elephant Park’ development does look like a genuine attempt to lift the gloom one feels on walking through the area. Judging from the architects impressions that adorn the hoardings, however, I couldn’t help feeling that the scheme would not only lift, but also separate the desirous from the desperate further still.
Nowhere is that separation more obvious than in the never-ending stream of new shopping concept-malls sprouting up everywhere. ‘OPENING IN MARCH 2016’ one building site wall promised, ‘A VIBRANT NEW SHOPPING EXPERIENCE’. There was no expansion attempted on how exactly the vibrant consumption environment would be novel; perhaps it’s going to operate in an exciting new niche. Like designer vibrators, for example.
I plodded somewhat wearily along New Kent Road towards my billet and – while eyeing various entertainment posters – was struck once again by the stagnant nature of the arts in a neoliberally-run culture. One ad – for a US imported movie called Missing you Already – used the strapline ‘Lives fall apart, friends put it together’. It struck me as a plot idea guaranteed to make one either nod off to sleep, or vomit, or both. I imagined hot-shot lawyers having a field-day pursuing claims for choking deaths during the film.
A TV series called England 90 was about to return to Channel 4, and in theatreland there was a musical – Sunny Afternoon – about the Kinks in the 1960s, a musical experience sharing the work of Frank Sinatra in the 1950s, and a ‘new’ play about the 1960s called Kinky Boots.
Everything is new in London, but nothing is new in London. For London is the Pottersville nightmare imagined by James Stewart in the late 1940s Frank Capra classic A Wonderful Life. Potterism being for the moment in control of London’s vision, the reversion to the old days of the excluded Poor exists in surreal tandem with glitzy expressions of a corporacratic future. Looking up at The Shard rising like a Church of Mammon spire outside London Bridge station, I felt the structure needed a large label stuck onto it, bearing the warning ‘FRAGILE’.
I’ve left London now, and arrived back in Kent. There is no desire at all within me ever to return there. It used to be the United Kingdom’s capital city: it has become a place perverted by the City’s greedy desire to capture capital for the sole use of Big Globalism. And thus it is no place for real people any more.