Reading London

I am currently in London, on a short secondment. In a few weeks, I’ll be returning to Bengaluru. While my secondment has been immensely interesting, London has been more so. I should mention here that this also happens to be my first long trip outside India, and the new experience of staying in another country adds to my readings of London in different ways.

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London can be a difficult place to read, or form opinions about. Firstly, this difficulty arises from the fact that I’m only here for a short time. More importantly however, London, like many cities of Europe and North America, established its presence with me long before I visited it. Attempting to critically analyse the city and what happens in its spaces involves a tough battle of separating the London I’d read and heard about for years, from the conurbation that stands before me. Here, I make an attempt to do so.

As I see it before me

If I walk on Blackfriars Bridge, I’d be thinking about the Black Friars of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. A random street called Abbey Road conjures visions of The Beatles and the 1960s. Even the otherwise unremarkable Portland Place reminds me of the murder in John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps, a novel I’d read so long ago that I’d almost forgotten the story. It’s evidence for the subtle and enduring strength of soft power, that decades after Empire became Kingdom, its capital city is still suffused with an evocative spirit conjured by books and films for people from around the world. Mumbai and Delhi occupy similar positions in Indian imaginations, but London has a global presence that initially captivates, but leaves me somewhat disturbed upon introspection.

I need to contrast this with the actual city I see before me. First, the good stuff. The city, as it exists today, is a stereotypical planner’s dream. Streets are straight and pavements are wide. There are parks and large squares, spaces where people congregate. The Thames is what I would call a ‘working river’, a space that’s integrated into the city’s design and actually used for economic and recreational activities (Kolkata’s Hoogly is the other place where I’ve seen a similar integration of the river with the city). London also has a system of canals that has been worked into the city’s fabric to become public spaces for people to traverse. Public transportation is excellent, with an integrated network of buses, trains, cycles, ferries, and taxis that are tied together to ensure access to transit at all times. More importantly, the city is incredibly walkable. I’ve never found it so easy to explore a city on foot before.

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However, beneath the surface, there are some serious problems, the most visible being housing. London seems to be hovering on the edge of a housing crisis and access to affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult. Signs of it are everywhere, from the city’s theatres hosting plays (Whose London is it anyway?), to rising scholarship on gentrification and political activism. According to the London Housing Market Report (released by the Greater London Authority), in November 2015, rents for all property sizes were twice as high as the national average for the United Kingdom. London’s average house price in February 2015 was 531,000 GBP, the highest recorded. In January 2016, about 150 students at UCL went on strike, protesting high costs of student accommodation at both the university as well as in the larger city. Additionally, there is a visibly large number of homeless people on the streets (though some charities have contended that this has more to do with issues like drug abuse than homelessness).

Apart from housing, there are other concerns. London’s economy, based largely on the presence of service sector industries such as finance, consultancy, design, media, and accounting, was badly hit in the 2008 crisis. While it began to recover in the 2010s (by 2015, its Gross Value Added or GVA growth was 21% while the rest of the UK was 8%), the fears of another crash are quite palpable. This however, should also be seen as part of larger stories occupying the UK, the most significant being the debacles in the European Union and the ongoing refugee crisis.

In June, UK citizens will vote on a referendum to leave or stay within the European Union. While political parties are split into differing camps on how to deal with a British exit (“the Brexit”) from the EU, the question of what will happen to London in case of a Brexit is the focus of much debate. The future of Europeans from outside the UK, many of whom have lived in London for years, remains uncertain. For many non-European immigrants, the potential of developing new relationships with the UK are tempered by fears of an economic downturn which may follow an exit. A big concern for some is the future of London’s businesses – will firms still find it viable to operate out of London, after losing relatively easy access to European markets? How will their decisions affect employment and incomes in the city? These points are debated back and forth, with different opinions clashing with each other on radio stations, television studios, and public spaces.

Meanwhile, the physical landscape of London is changing. From what I’ve heard, the last seven or eight years have seen dramatic alterations in the city skyline, with the old brick-and-mortar, relatively low-rise buildings making way for new constructions of glass, steel, and chrome. Construction sites are ubiquitous, and the skyline is thickly peppered with tower cranes, working steadily to complete large projects. The stark change between old and new is most apparent in the City of London (informally known as the Square Mile), the oldest part of the London Metropolitan Area, which has its own government and police force, separate from the rest of the city. Here, buildings dating back centuries (such as the 300-year old house of Samuel Johnson) compete with new glass-and-steel towers that have come to occupy what was always the heart of London’s financial and banking industry. Meanwhile, in areas further off (such as Battersea), the ubiquity of construction is complete, as site after site is getting demolished, renovated, or built upon. What will happen to the construction industry in case of a Brexit remains anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the paradox of constant construction in the presence of a housing crisis keeps asserting itself constantly.

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Having seen parallel stories in Bengaluru and Mumbai, none of this feels too new. And yet, certain differences do exist. One such difference was the presence of privatised public spaces. I first came across this in Paternoster Square, home to London’s Stock Exchange. A notice was placed at the entrance to the square, reminding visitors that the Square was private property, and that while the public was allowed to visit and use the square, such rights could revoked at any time by the Square’s owner. This is not unique to Paternoster. In 2012, The Guardian ran an article on the issue, commenting on how new development in the city is being accompanied by an increasing amount of privatisation, with rights to formerly public spaces being handed over by private agencies. In 2012, during the Occupy London movement, protestors were forced to demonstrate at St. Paul’s Cathedral instead of in front of the Stock Exchange, as Paternoster Square was shut down. Back home, we’ve flirted with this situation in different ways – in 2014, the Bengaluru’s city corporation nearly pledged the Puttanachetty Town Hall as collateral for a 200 crore rupee loan and has also mortgaged several markets including K.R. Market. However, the starkness of enclosure in places like Paternoster Square, in ways that are visible yet subtle, remains a point of difference.

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The other visible difference is the presence of local governments. The decentralisation of governance in London is deep, with local councils holding significant power in deciding planning and development within their respective boroughs. There are strong citizen movements and a relatively active media concentrating on local issues. London as a whole also has a fairly powerful metropolitan government and the Mayor of London is seen as a prestigious and influential post.Yet, even as I think back to demands in India for more powerful Mayors or alternatively, ‘City CEOs’, I read reports every other day of governance conflicts in city planning. The Mayor’s office was recently criticised for cutting funds to fire services, resulting in the closing of 10 fire stations. His office was also criticised for overruling the decisions of a local council while approving plans that threatened a heritage site. When I contrast how the legitimacy of these criticisms are recognised in debates, with the fact that decentralised local governments are yet to be established in many Indian cities, it often feels surreal. At the same time, it gently reminds me of what I often forget – decentralised governments can’t be an end in themselves. Without active civic participation, they’ll only end up transferring conflict instead of resolving them.

Legacies of the Past

In spite of all these changes, the London that I’d read about is still alive and present. There is a powerful urge within London to connect to its history. This is reflected in both the scores of monuments and memorials that are strewn across the landscape, as well as in movements like Save Soho, each of which address different aspects of London’s past. Blue plaques are plastered on hundreds of buildings, carrying famous names and describing well known events. Everyday, I’m reminded of its relationship with India in numerous small ways – while reading a plaque showing Raja Ram Mohun Roy’s residence, crossing a memorial to soldiers of the sub-continent who died in World War One, or visiting a former dockyard where tea-ships of the East India Company used to dock.

War is probably the most well-represented theme in London’s attempts to preserve history. The legacy of war is everywhere, with countless memorials to soldiers, pilots, nurses, and generals who fought the two World Wars.  The red poppy, symbol of the soldiers who died in World War One, are laid in wreaths at the bases of several statues. Every aspect and facet of the wars is honoured – from the sacrifices of soldiers to the intelligence of spies to the perseverance of doctors and nurses. Even scars from bombings are sometimes preserved – a statue of the Sphinx at Cleopatra’s Needle still carries its scars from bombs of World War One. It’s a strange sight, where two sides of London – as the epicentre of a colonising empire and as a victim of war – come together.

This brings me to another site where history comes alive in London, the museum. London has an incredible number of museums and galleries where artifacts of great value are preserved. The most famous of these of course, is the British Museum, a vast building with a breathtaking collection of objects and artifacts from across the globe. The collection evoked much thought, for instance, on how the narratives of history are often influenced by the availability of evidence and vice versa. For instance, I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that so many western narratives of civilisation begin with Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece while some of the largest and most important collections in the British Museum belong to these regions of the world.

The British Museum also reflects the ever-present legacy of colonialism and the troubling debates they evoke. Just a few months before I arrived in London, there had been a fresh round of demands for Britain to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India. While this once again raised the question of whether countries like the UK should return artifacts appropriated from former colonies, the collections at the British Museum did raise other troubling questions. For instance, if the UK had indeed followed such a policy earlier, its valuable Assyrian collection would currently be under threat in Iraq and Syria. On other hand if, god forbid, the UK were to come under some conflict as in World War Two, other countries whose artifacts reside in the British Museum will only be able to watch helplessly, as their histories come under attack. It’s a complex question, and while there’s no doubt that almost all artifacts in the the British Museum belong to the world at large, the question of who gets custodianship and why remains a tricky domain to navigate.

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However, even as London continues to honour and cherish its history in many ways, the challenges of the present do not go away. What to preserve, how, and in what ways remain questions of debate. The problem of funding remains a perennial problem, especially in current times of austerity and budget cuts. Private funding is often contested. Recently, environmental activists ran campaigns in the Tate Modern Museum, protesting the funding of Tate Modern by BP (formerly British Petroleum), whose business is based heavily on sales of fossil fuels. While BP claimed it was unaffected by the protests, it terminated its 26-year partnership with the Tate Modern, withdrawing funding worth about 224,000 GBP a year.

Furthermore, current constraints on land and real estate are putting pressures on the existing landscape. While places like the British Museum are unlikely to be affected, less-known historical buildings or regular housing that just happens to be old (some housing in the city dates back to the 19th Century) may come under threat and indeed are being threatened. This is yet another reflection of the perennial balancing act that cities have to perform, between transforming to fit contemporary needs and staying intact to preserve pasts.

Going Ahead?

London seems to be a city at the crossroads and is probably going to change significantly in the next few years. Much of its immediate economic future is likely to depend on the Brexit, as well as any consequences from either choice that the UK makes with regard to the EU. Furthermore, it should be noted that given London’s strong linkages to the global economy, it remains vulnerable thanks to the fragile state of world markets.

Nevertheless, its economic fortunes remain bound to the UK, which is also facing significant economic challenges. Steel plants in north England and Scotland were recently closed due to their inability to compete with cheap steel imports from China and towns here face large levels of unemployment. Meanwhile, an imposition of austerity coupled with numerous budget cuts have placed enormous strains upon public services. A sizing down of budgets for the National Health Service (NHS) over years reached a flashpoint this week, when junior doctors of the NHS went on a 48-hour strike, protesting increased work hours with no increase in pay. The impact of austerity and budget cuts resonate everywhere. Each of these events affect circumstances in London in various ways, from employment to economy to policy to governance and planning.

In spite of all this gloom, it’s hard to feel too pessimistic about where this city seems to be going. While its challenges are likely to be huge, its also important to note how vigourous and vibrant public debate and activism is within London. Relatively, public debate seems to be much more well-integrated and its legitimacy more well-recognised than in most other places I have visited. Furthermore, to me London’s key challenge seems to be to preserve and upgrade the good already created, a challenge which may be relatively simpler than the act of creation itself. It has found some kind of path that works for itself and now it has figure out how not to stray from it while dealing with the consequences of its earlier journeys. This is different from the cities in India that I’ve been part of, where the paths forward are still obscure and even when they’re visible, not everyone may be willing to travel on it.

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