‘Seventies London was a great place to grow up. As the son of refugees, I say to the English: so long, and thanks for the language’
A friend from St Petersburg came to visit me last week. “There is something special about London. Something special about the people. I want to find it.” In her 20s, a fan of English music and writers, she was hoping I could direct her to the throbbing aorta of London, that street corner, that club, that pub where the very elixir of Albion could be imbibed.
I couldn’t, because (A) as I’m middle-aged, I rarely want to leave home; (B) as I’m dependent on the Victoria Line, I rarely go anywhere because it’s almost permanently closed down and (C) I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the English have been almost completely dri-ven out of central London.
London has become the capital of Europe and seems to be running a campaign to be the über-city. It’s gained in sushi bars and Slav beauties since my youth, but its Englishness has been diluted. Its chief features now are the gloomy weather, the bad temper of its citizens and the failure of anything to work.
The English are now close to being a minority in London (and I don’t care what the official statistics say; I’ve lived here most of my life and I’ve witnessed the change). The English may be the largest single group, but they’re on the back foot. Walk down Oxford Street if you think I’m wrong.
Let me add that I couldn’t care less if this island is entirely composed of Austrian bankers, Belgian ticket-inspectors, Chinese accountants, Kurdish barbers, Nigerian estate agents, Somali security guards, Thai chefs etc., while the few remaining Anglo-Saxons collect their sickness benefit on the Wirral.
However, as the son of refugees and as someone for whom English is a second language, I’m grateful to the English who welcomed us so generously and gave me a fantastic vocabulary to play with. Seventies London was a great place to grow up. So I say to the English: so long, and thanks for the language.
Indisputably, what is happening in London is a world phenomenon. All the big cities are turning into global cauldrons. Everyone is everywhere. Every big city has the flavour of the global goulash.
As a writer, what interests me most is how culture will be affected. As a writer, it disheartens me that half the population of London don’t know what a sentence is, couldn’t write a decent one (in English or any other language) and have little interest in reading one. Maybe what is happening is simply a shift, that the global goulash will produce a new supra-national culture and literature. Maybe it’s simply the termination of national, individual cultures and the birth of a single, telluric culture. Or is it that the mix of airport departure lounge and trading floor that is London is inimical to creation?
The other culture-killer is cost. In the 70s, London was affordable, or at least survivable, if you were starting out. There were squats. (Anyone seen a squat in London lately?) Budding writers and musicians found hovels in Earls Court and Islington. When Salman Rushdie won the Booker in 1982, you could buy, outright, a good two-bedroom flat with the prize money. It’s now been upped to £50,000 which is barely a decent deposit.
Perhaps it’s only scale. In the 70s the writers lived in Islington; now they’re in Stoke Newington. Maybe in 10 years’ time, being a writer will mean having a Stevenage address and a longer journey to your publisher.
The other problem an aspiring creator faces is there’s already too much culture, too readily available. Since my first novel was published in 1992, there are millions more novels, literally tens of millions more books in existence, hanging around, taking up space in shops, in libraries, on shelves, on train seats, as competition.
Never mind the canon: I have to compete not only with Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky et al. but hundreds of thousands of still scribbling novelists from around the world. How many books can anyone read? When I bought “Tubular Bells” or “Never Mind the Bollocks” or “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”, one of the reasons I bought those albums was that there had never been anything like them before. A new culture was being created. There are no longer albums, but genres. Any kid now can get hold of months of listening, of any genre, with a few clicks.
Not only are there unmanageable amounts of culture, but no one has to buy it any more. I suspect that the only purchasers of DVDs, CDs or magazines are those who haven’t yet figured out how to download them illegally (ie, a shrinking demographic) or people who need to buy someone a present. There will never be death for the novel, for poetry, for music, for theatre, for Morris dancing, but there will be less space for some of them. Every generation needs its pin-ups and chroniclers, workers with words and sounds. But if I were 11 now, I’d be dreaming about computer games. Because that will be the great art form of the 21st century. Maybe the Michelangelo of the PlayStation is out there somewhere in London, getting ready, getting telluric, dreaming of being hunted down by ladies from St Petersburg.