I took a short visit to a foreign country last night. No passport needed; that country was the city-state once known as London. It was time for a piece of gratuitous decadence, an Ermine trip to visit the heart of the Imperium, to go see Philip Glass’s Akenhaten at the Coliseum. I fear the Ermine lacks culture, so I enjoyed this as music and performance art, with no idea of the plot 😉 Mrs Ermine however is of more refined tastes, and actually understands WTF is going on, but so be it, it was still a fine experience for my unsophisticated fur. I’ve seen a Mozart opera there once before when I used to live in London and recalled the venue as being microscopic, and it still is. I was used to listening to music in places like the RAH and the RFH. I don’t do theatre because I lack the education/refinement to avoid getting bored or losing the ability to suspend disbelief – I never understood why people bother with theatre after movies and television were invented, so I wasn’t familiar with the bijouness of the venues, presumably the limits of human visual acuity constrict size so the punters get to see what’s going on on the stage.
The Coliseum is of course deep in the heart of this foreign country, and we penetrated the defences of the city from the provincial backwaters. I have gotten sick of having to barge out before the final curtain to catch the last train to Ipswich that usually leaves London at 11:30 pm, so we drove to Colchester, as you get another hour to sort yourself out by the time the very last train leaves at a quarter to one.
I grew up and went to university in London, and the basic street plan of the inner city hasn’t changed much, but they are always building stuff. We took the Tube to Tottenham Court Road to walk down, and at first when we got out of the station I thought they had demolished Centrepoint, but it was something else nearby that they’ve turned into a two-storey high lump of rubble. Damned if I can remember what it was.
We couldn’t really stick more strap-hanging than absolutely necessary in the commuter underground crowds – this is something that has got a hell of a lot worse than when I commuted to near Broadcasting house – and this was the shortly after 5 rush hour and travelling into the city rather than out of it.
We drifted down towards Monmouth Street and then via Seven Dials where I used to like browsing the bookshops and oddball shops. The place has been transformed, it seems, in the last few years – it absolutely stinks of money, everything has been turned into a bewildering array of restaurants catering to every niche taste, in minimalist glitzy bright lights and whatnot. I even got to see people queuing to get into a restaurant, since when has that been a thing? We had time to kill to wandered towards Leicester square and had a couple of drinks in the Bear and Staff, which bent a twenty pound note well out of shape. Having said that, at least they kept the beer decently, some of those pricey pubs used to serve a pretty ropey pint because they knew they could get away with it. And of course the people looked beautiful and young, even in the pub. Then it was time to wander back to the Coliseum and hoof it up miles of stairs it seemed, way up into the Gods.
After the show we got to see that rough sleeping in London has got up to Thatcher’s first recession standards. The whole thing was a bizarre counterpoint of the eye-watering reek of incredible amounts of money and the fact that you can’t move or do anything in London without spending shitloads of money. Which is fine for tourists, domestic and foreign, because they aren’t doing it all the time. But London seems to be such a great sucking force, a workhouse for the young as the Telegraph put it. But it also sucks money out of them, in housing, in living, you can’t even go for a dump in the city[ref]on further research, this is apparently not the case – more free bogs[/ref] without being shaken down for the privilege, I have no idea how you live in the city without becoming inured to paying far too much for all sorts of things, because raw and garish consumerism is all out there and right in your face. Do people even have kitchens in London these days, you can probably make the business case that the rent you’d pay on the space will get you a year’s worth of nouvelle cuisine, or at least more fried chicken than is good for you?
It’s a different place, this post financial crash London – and it made me feel poor. Not poor as in dossing down in a doorway – while I have slept in the open in London I did it in some 1980s summer, not in early March. But I looked at all the money changing hands and the overpriced this, that and the other, the shocking price you get charged for a cup of coffee[ref]I resisted. I can live with being overcharged for beer, but not coffee, particularly when the coffee has as many calories as beer[/ref], and it was impossible to get away from the fact that this is a place that makes you feel poor if you don’t have at least a million pounds in investible assets. And I don’t.
And yet I saw the dark underbelly of this beating heart of the Imperial centre as the trains started to draw out towards the provinces, because there is a strange onion-ring effect. Once you are past the recently-gentrified Stratford [ref]I knew someone who lived in Stratford in the late ’80s. Their parents flat out refused to let us go to the pub round the corner on the principle it was that rough they may as well call the cops when we stepped out the door in the dark[/ref] you see row upon row of shabby High Streets with rows of dirty chicken shops, fast food joints, betting shops and places that advertise they take Western Union. I’m sure they sent a search party out for a legit way to use Western Union sometime in the late 1980s but they never returned. They may as well call the place a laundromat for money with the strapline ‘ask no questions, tell no lies’. We take Western Union is just not the sign of a good part of the ‘hood.
Now I grew up in south east London, which was the arse end of the universe back in the day because the tube didn’t go there. It’s still the wrong side of the tracks, but in a different way now, I know a couple where he works somewhere in Canary Wharf though they live sarf of the river. I don’t know where the horny-handed sons of toil live – or do Londoners just throw stuff out when it stops working – looking at some of the trash at the end of the day it seems perhaps. One day there will be a company trucking this shit out to the provinces where children will heat up the circuit boards over coal fires to recycle the parts in some part of Britain-that isn’t-London and they will make a mint. Or scavenging gangs coming in on the last in train and leaving on the six am out trains with their rubbish booty. On the other hand it’s good to see that the London Evening Standard is all for the idea of a basic universal income, there’s hope yet.
And there’s even more hope from the paper – perhaps the pimps, oligarchs and spivs will be ejected from the city when the original Omphalos of London is to be restored to its rightful place. Be careful what you wish for, vainglorious City of London Corporation, because London Stone was there before you.
So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London flourish
Inscription, apparently – I’ve heard of the legend though never seen it written[ref]This PDF from the Museum of London has more[/ref].
This new city state has gone rogue, it’s a really weird place, and somebody in London town has got to be eating a serious amount of generic fried chicken to support all those dirty chicken shops. As the train cleared the city limits I felt less impoverished 😉 After all, unlike all those strap-hangers and the beautiful people in the pub, I didn’t have to get up to go to work today. It’s not a million pounds, but it’s worth something, and that something is called Time…
Oh and I was chuffed that people listened/watched the performance entirely with their own eyes, rather than through the screen of a smartphone. Didn’t realise that sort of thing still happened. I didn’t actually see people being shaken down for ambulatory telephonic apparatus, and it’s not like the bulbous thingy at the top of the Coliseum houses an EMP device to fry the works of every smartphone within 100 yards of the building. One day these things will be available, hopefully, but refreshingly no need this time.
There is, of course, the irony of going to the gratuitous decadence of an an opera making the financially independent feel impoverished, but London has become a really, really, strange place since the financial crash. It’s as if the crash never happened, indeed, it feels as if the financial crash was good for London is some bizarre way, though I am sure it sucked for people who worked for Lehman’s and the like. As to whether what’s good for London is good for Londoners, well, that’s a totally different question. The way the Grauniad has been talking about Millennials who nearly all work in London[ref]Earth to Guardian – while your interns may think the M25 is the edge of the world there is a fair amount of territory beyond[/ref] they are hosed, though I observe even now Millennials are earning more in real and relative terms than when I was the equivalent age working in London in 1986. Which has something to do with why I got the hell out. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been a hellacious suckout compared to recent times, it looks like you were truly charmed if you reached 30 in 2007. And, surprisingly, SOL if you are 45 to 49 – you’d have been relatively better being 30 years older, monetarily, though you can take cheer that you are still better off in real terms. But as the London experience shows, being rich isn’t about how much you have, after a certain point is reached which Britain reached long ago. It’s about how much you have relative to other people, and that’s a bear. Because while many of us live like kings of old in absolute terms, doing the ‘I’m king of the castle and better off than everyone else’ is still as hard as it always was.