Welcome to the end of London.
Everyone knows what’s been going on. Knife attacks, vans mowing into pedestrians, panic and fire. There’s terror and there’s terrorism, there’s anger and there’s fear. Right now there’s police tape all over the Seven Sisters Road and a tower block filled with charred corpses gravely peering over Ladbroke Grove.
And now even the weather’s getting in on the act, the fireball searing every inch of exposed flesh and making every commute an exercise in keeping murder at bay. In June. All in all, this city’s done.
It gets into your bones, this place. I can easily lose an hour staring at the river, wondering how many bodies have been dragged down by its currents – a number increasing by the week as we know. I’ve walked and walked so many streets in London, if I’d had a gadget to track my path over the years the snapshot would give Jackson Pollock epilepsy. I know this town. I love this town.
I hate this town. Take the Tube: a wonderful invention, ruined by allowing people on it. Everyone is the centre of their own novel here and dare to break the plot’s flow, say by suggesting there might be more space for you to get onto the train if you let me the fuck off it first, and prepare to receive a typically London glare of pure hatred in response.
It’s a dirty place too. Occasionally the skinny man hidden in me wins out and I decide to have a nice healthy soup for lunch, only to have any benefit coughed out of me by the world-beating levels of pollution on every major thoroughfare. Not 100 yards from where I sit in this office in a city filled with offices, I can watch the Queen’s horses pass judgement on recent events by shitting all over Whitehall.
Now we’re forced to live with the constant threat of maniacs. Londoners have begun to reminisce about the golden years of the IRA, when proper terrorists would choose genuine targets and civilians were collateral damage in the true, noble, Obama’s drones sense. Now it turns out knives are more easily obtainable than plastic explosives, and bloody sharp.
And, incredibly, vans are actually a threat to me now – me, a white male, not a woman begging for a good hur hur hur show us your tits darlin from one mug and his mastiff. I know only fools go voluntarily to south London but even the godforsaken lower half of the city should be spared armed police rampaging through a market. And since the Finsbury Park incident we can’t even blame it all on brown people any more, which rather messes with the narrative.
But the biggest problem is not those who would make us bleed but the ballooning inequality that leads to catastrophies like the Grenfell Tower fire. London recovers from individual attacks or accidents as though wiping a kitchen surface clean. But something about this fire has struck at the core of anyone with any feeling for the place. Poor people have burned to death in a tower that overlooks some of the richest parts of the capital of the fifth biggest economy in the world. Somehow, in a city of nine million people, homes can’t be found for a few hundred who’ve lost everything.
As you’d expect of any large collection of people thrown together by necessity, circumstance and crime, the non-official response to the Grenfell fire has been predictably solid and generous. Being decent to each other wins out. Normality must go on, just like nobody is reacting to terrorism by changing their plans. Theatres are sold out and parks are packed. Only a few really spectacular dickheads have responded by directing abuse at Muslims or EU citizens or whoever else is topically to blame.
But if London’s minted want this stoicism to remain, things are going to have to change. If poverty is allowed to build in pockets while the wealthy buy up houses and flats they use twice a year, the violence that will eventually burst out will make the summer of 2011 look like the summer of 2012. You can feel it building month by month, and while nobody expects Islamic fanaticism to be a thing 50 years from now, if you think the rich-poor divide is going to fix itself you must be one of those people who has a holiday home somewhere.
London will always be a wonderful, hideous, proud and vengeful shambles of a place. Built on a swamp, it sinks slowly into the water as the unending influx of us trample its history underfoot like Theresa’s fields of wheat. Smash into it, stab it, set it ablaze – it’ll outlive you, and it’ll outlive all of us. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I don’t know.
This is a happy/horrific Gomorrah of a place. You can fuck with it however you like but it is, and will forever be, our kind of place, because we’re the damned and we love it.
But beware, oh overlords of finance and power. A few loons on a murder spree could never damage this place as much as your avarice, and one terrible fire has put you in the spotlight. Inequality on such a massive scale is blatantly untenable. It’s no longer good enough to look sombrely over London on a flight to Luxembourg while your representatives roll out platitudes about task forces and public inquiries. Surely even you can see that whole families burning to death, maybe because a developer chose to save a few quid on insulation, is wrong, just so wrong.
Share some of what you have, or nine million people will do it for you. Fix this mess of a city, or London will take back what you think is yours.