Swans Commentary » swans.com February 25, 2008  



London Laughing


by Peter Byrne


Letter from London



[ed. correction, added February 20, 2011: The name of Ken Livingstone was misspelled by the author. Please note the correct spelling: "Livingstone," not "Livingston." Thanks to reader Michael Duggan for bringing this to our attention.]


(Swans - February 25, 2008)   George Gershwin was right about New York City. It's full of the drama of sharp rises and falls. In fact the screech at its island heart comes across as melodrama. And it has always had a face stamped on it, sweet or ugly. The mayoral line-up would pop the eyes of a deviser of soap opera. It goes from Jimmy "Beau" James and "The Little Flower" LaGuardia, through Bill O'Dwyer whose name rhymed with mire, the hugely miscast John V. Lindsay, Ed Koch direct from outer space, Giuliani of the grimace that stopped those terrorist pigeons' shitting, and the too-reassuring Bloomberg, everybody's rich uncle.

London has never been like that. You can only wonder at the recent bright idea of journalists to twin the two cities in some kind of Atlantic super-metropolis. Because travel writers know the boutique hotels and cool shiny bars in both places they have dreamt up this cheap thrill for package tourists. As far as telling us anything significant about the places, they may as well have thrown either city together with Calcutta to spin out their word count.

London has never had a face. Even Churchill in the Blitz was careful not to over-display his mug. The same was true of the King who would visit bombed-out families with a bemused look that said these bombs on London are an upheaval of nature -- don't ask me for any abracadabra to stop an act of God.

Exactly. London is best thought of as an alternative natural order. It's not something erected, but a growth, a fungus. It was dubbed "the Smoke" in the past, but now that the air has been cleared, what remains is a great swathe of moss. Emblematic apples, even a big juicy one, wouldn't stand out on that soft, damp spreading carpet. No more relevant as an emblem would be some bridge or tower or mixture of the two. To observe the moss at ground level is the way to know London. The city reveals itself as endless residential housing, generally of two to four stories, with some sort of enclosed green patch behind and, if not more out front, a sunken paved area giving daylight to a kitchen.

These interminable stretches of houses, mostly in rows, appear to have been planted there by some obsessive market gardener that eventually was fitted out with a straitjacket. What takes the curse off the rusting, dying crop is the excitement attendant on its continuous transformation, while all the time it still remains within the same old outer peeling and husk. Neighborhoods rise and fall on the class barometer. Gentrification comes but also, at least till the present day, goes again. Seediness can usually be counted on to return and reaffirm London's vocation as a place where people come in order to change themselves. This explains the optimism of the twenty-somethings gathered from around Europe and the world. A sunny zest buoys them up despite high prices and gray skies. Some may even change for the better.

What does London have instead of a face or an Empire State or Chrysler peak to put on its flag? It used to have the London County Council. The LCC was created in 1889 in the wake of various 19th century scandals and took complete control of services over inner London. It was a reasonable guardian, bureaucratic and poky but with your interests at heart. In the 1960s, the Tory government replaced it by a Greater London Council or GLC. This body would run the capital while leaving the provision of services to its various districts or boroughs. Overall planning would suffer and the quality of life differ increasingly from one borough to another.

Labour won control at the first GLC election, but power shifted back and forth between the two parties. In 1981 Labour took control and Ken Livingston became council leader. His non-conformism led to a ruthless Tory campaign to convince the public he represented "the loony left." The Thatcher government then took the first steps to destroy the GLC and succeeded in 1986. There were voters in some of the scruffier boroughs that had different, maybe not so loony "left" ideas about running their city. It was safer not to have them interfering. Livingston moved on and became a member of parliament.

In 1997 the UK was back in the hands of Labour with a mandate to hold a referendum on whether London should, for the first time, have an elected mayor. It would also be decided if a Greater London Authority should be established. The results were yes on both counts.

Ken Livingston was no friend to Tony Blair's politics and lost out as Labour candidate for mayor. (As did the political-minded actress, also of the left, Glenda Jackson.) But Livingston ran and won as an independent, much to the chagrin of the New Labour establishment. Its reaction was to reabsorb "Red Ken" and make him its own winning candidate in 2004 and again, probably, in 2008.

Does that mean "Ken Leninspart," as Private Eye calls him, could figure smiling on a banner over London? The possibility is so unlikely as to be laughable. In fact Livingston has been made a figure of fun, which is one way "the Great Wen" has of castrating its uppity Dick Whittingtons. To start with, the London mayor simply doesn't have that much power. There are only some government functions in the London region that his office budgets and plans. There is talk of enhancing the role of mayor, but even then it wouldn't go much beyond the areas of "waste, culture, and sport," in that order. A recent headline said that Livingston "would lead action on obesity." To put his strength in perspective, he wields perhaps 5% of the power of Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago.

As straw man and entertainer, however, Livingston gives good value. London's surreal tabloids would panic without him. Charges of cronyism and inadequate accounting have dogged him. He infringed a busybody "Code of Conduct" when he punched somebody's nose at a late night party. But mainly he's been guilty of thought crime in the in vino veritas vein: The Saudi Royal Family ought to be hanged. Ariel Sharon was a "War Criminal." George W. Bush was "the greatest threat to life on this planet." And "the attempt by one country to unilaterally impose itself on the rest of the world is not only undesirable but simply won't work." This is all run of the mill stuff now but nonetheless far from Labour Party foreign policy and refreshing in the mouth of its mayor of London. As the result of one slanging match with a London Jewish journalist, the Standards Board suspended Livingston from office for two weeks. But the sentence was overturned. The truth is that Red Ken, though as picturesque as the Cockney Pearly King, is hardly subversive. Charles Kimber in International Socialism, Issue 113, probably got it right. He's "full of contradictions, a man who sometimes talks radical but mostly delivers exactly what the rich and powerful desire."

Kimber's description fits another face that London rejected as a figurehead and buried under laughter. This was the Stan Laurel visage of Prince Charles, heir to the throne. The same mechanism was at work. Along came a thinking man with ideas of his own that like Livingston might, if we don't look too closely, let him pass as a maverick. Charles too talked radical. There was nothing comic about his dabbling in organic farming. But when he marketed his products the Daily Mail called them "unhealthier than Big Macs." As a watercolor artist and a protector of obscure Romanian peasant villages, he put himself well on the road to crank country. He showed his mettle and wrong-headedness by addressing a major assembly of British architects and denouncing their work. He followed up by writing it all down in a book. The Prince harped on "human scale" and the evils of "modern" architecture without showing he knew good buildings from bad, whether low or high, old or new.

But it was in alternative medicine that Charles sealed his reputation as Prince Goofy. The medical establishment called the "complementary therapies" he proposed "pseudoscience" and even "fraud." Then to the medical men's horror, far from backing down, he went on to take a particular fancy for coffee enemas as a cure for cancer.

As with Red Ken, the press and its readers would miss the off-center opinions of the Heir Apparent, whom they have reduced to a Monty Python figure with family connections to P. G. Wodehouse and Jeeves. Charles has not been able to fight back openly. But his feelings came out when he spoke to his sons in front of a microphone that he wrongly thought closed. Just before an interview with the BBC's Royal Reporter, he said: "I hate doing this....These bloody people. I can't bear that man, he's so awful, he really is."

The supreme tabloid guffaw at Charles's expense came in 1993 when the newspapers obtained tapes of a 1989 mobile phone conversation between him and his then mistress, now second wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles. The nation was treated to some choice romantic dialogue as they heard their perhaps future king wish he were a fluffy bit of Kotex tucked into the private parts of his beloved.

Not that the event drove the Prince underground or shut him up. Did Red Ken's threatened suspension for brawling put him off good whisky? Charles had called the Chinese leaders "appalling old waxworks" in 1997. Ten years later he threatens not to attend the Beijing Olympics as a protest over Tibet. Charles left it to his brother Andrew to ignore protocol and attack George W. Bush recently for failing to listen to Britain during the conflict in Iraq. But Charles himself has at times proven a thorn in the president's impenetrable hide. Two months after 9/11 he told senior Muslims in London: "I find the language and rhetoric coming from America too confrontational." In 2005 on a visit to Washington and Bush he was still trying to increase the clueless president's appreciation of Islam. He has spoken of "unthinkable prejudices" about Islam and its customs and laws: "Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of other religions, including Christianity."

There are numberless other figures that have been pushed aside by Londoners as much too ridiculously human to stand in for the city. The literary world has come up with its own unrepresentative man in the novelist Martin Amis. The Amis Junior mystery can be summed up in the question of why everyone has always disliked him so. After all, he's no Ezra Pound, who had a crush on Mussolini, or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who topped up the Third Reich's hate rhetoric.

Being the son of Kingsley Amis gave Martin a start of the mixed-blessing variety. Kingsley held the stage as the London novelist par excellence from the appearance of Lucky Jim in 1954 till he dissolved in a puddle of alcohol, writing to the last, in 1995. He'd been a member of the Communist Party at Oxford and was considered one of the "Angry Young Men" who shared disappointment that the British class system hadn't loosened up more after WWII. But Kingsley's London transformation made him into a bumptious conservative. Among his pet hates were the members of the New Left and anyone anti-British. Martin said his father received a Knighthood in 1990 in part for being "audibly and visibly right wing, or conservative/monarchist."

Nineteen in the London of 1968, Martin couldn't have had an easy time at home with papa doing a Colonel Blimp. Kingsley delighted in issuing extravagant statements. He urged on the Americans in Vietnam and suggested they break out the nukes. Nor did he have much sympathy for Martin's literary efforts. Still, Junior certainly got a leg-up and already worked for the Times Literary Supplement at twenty-four. Four years later he was literary editor of The New Statesman.

So the perception of being well connected, with three books published before he was thirty, made a good foundation for animosity toward Martin. A smart-alecky tone in his early writing added to the charges. But his novels of the 1980s showed real originality and a rare mastery of language. In many ways he was a more surprising writer than Kingsley. However, an unusually high advance for a book brought down the ultimate ire of envy on him. When he went to America and had his teeth expensively put right, a cry of hate rose from London scribblers of every size and shape. American writers, who have nothing against big advances, were dumbfounded by the commotion: "For crisake, the guy's only having some root canals done and a few caps put on his yellow British teeth. He's not having his dick enlarged!"

At the millennium, Martin seemed to be looking for a puffed-up world-class subject. Was he going to repeat Kingsley's right turn toward Blimpsville? He published a meaty autobiography in 2000 called Experience. It perhaps too respectfully came to terms with his dead father. There was a strange jump in the tone of the book when he spoke of his cousin Lucy Partington. She had been a victim of the serial killer Fred West. The reader felt Martin was reaching out for what he esteemed more weighty matters to write about.

In 2002 Martin published Koba the Dread, a non-fiction work about communism in the 20th Century. His novel Time's Arrow of 1991 had treated the Holocaust, but the event was obscured by literary experiment. Now he seemed besotted with big themes. The House of Meetings came in 2006. It was about a Soviet labor camp. Then Martin fell into scare mongering in the press about Islam. It's feared that a book will follow and that he's found a terrorist scarecrow to stand beside Kingsley's menacing, muscular communist.

Nicholas Lezard expressed the usual doubts about Martin in the Guardian, Oct.6, 2007:

There is unease in us when Amis steps off his beaten track, when he leaves London for the Holocaust, or for the gulag: he has endured London, but not the central disasters of the 20th century. We are led to suspicions of insincerity; of his outrage being, to use his words, voulu.

Poor Martin -- for London penmen, he will always be Junior, to be watched closely and not allowed too long a leash of imaginative freedom. They are a spiteful bunch, and Lezard here plays the schoolmarm. He's mistaken except in the sense that no other writer has chronicled contemporary London with Martin's sweep and intensity. Success, Money: A Suicide Note and London Fields are a scorching evocation of the Thatcher years. But all the same Martin Amis can no more encapsulate London for us than can Ken Leninspart or the quirky Prince of Wales. There's no way of inhaling the essence of Europe's world city but by putting your nose down into that infinity of moss.


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Published February 25, 2008