‘You cannot measure the success of a city by the number of coffee chains it can support’
Film critics used to say that New York was the most prominent character in Woody Allen’s films, so much did it form his personality and approach to life’s metaphysical questions. As I know from my five-year stint as this magazine’s film columnist, Woody’s horizons now more often take in European cities. The neurotic, pseudo-intellectualising but endearing characters which populated his 1970s and ’80s New York pictures no longer define the essence of that city. They are a vanishingly small tribe, having given way to the courting and consumerist rituals of Sex and the City and its successors.
Cinematically speaking, London has by comparison tended to loom in the background rather than shape a story, at least until the smug oeuvre of Richard Curtis. This is probably because, at least until recently, Londoners have not shared the self-consciousness about their town that causes New Yorkers to bring it up in every other sentence. It’s simply there, good and bad, like a fact of life.
But that doesn’t stop it becoming part of your character. As the years go by, I see more and more clearly how being Londoners shaped the lives of my grandparents and parents, all of them gone now but as much a part of the city as the bricks and mortar they left behind. They have been on my mind a lot in the past few weeks, since I was selected to be UKIP’s candidate for Mayor of London.
Together their lives spanned a century, during most of which the only mayor they knew of was the red-robed one who flitted past in his ceremonial gold coach once a year for the benefit of families of recalcitrant children (I was definitely not one of these: already having an overdeveloped sense of theatre, I loved it all right down to the last bit of gold braid). During that time, they passed on to me the history of this place, because it was also the history of their lives. So much were they intertwined with the place in which they were born, educated, worked and eventually died that criticism of it from outside was taken personally, although they might not have realised it. They, and London, made me.
For younger generations the idea that connection to a place — a country, a city — might be a defining quality just as much as having a sweet tooth or being a hopeless romantic is probably difficult to understand. Some aspire to rootlessness as a sort of individualist’s badge of honour, and much of contemporary consumerist London eggs them on. But the ability to exist anonymously has ultimately never proved to be the greatest recommendation for living anywhere. Like a country, a city has a soul, a spirit which links the present with what has gone before and what is about to come. It is not just about money alone; you cannot measure the success of a city by the number of coffee chains it can support.
Caring about such things does not, of course, lead directly to political involvement. But my family — transplanted from Peckham to Shooters Hill when I was still a baby — watched the news, read the papers and reacted to what they saw around them. They were what is now called Old Labour: a strong sense of working-class identity and a consciousness of economic unfairness mixed with aspiration and patriotism. They knew exactly who they were, although the party they voted for increasingly did not. So gradually, the Daily Mail replaced the Mirror, arguments around the tea table became more of a fixture, and I started a youthful political activity (of the Tory sort) which was to remain an on-and-off involvement until a career in television and the generally alien tone of the Blair years put it into abeyance.
It was 9/11 which brought politics crashing in again. I was living in California at the time, and even if I hadn’t been growing weary of yet another conversation about real estate or movie deals, the epoch-defining nature of that event suddenly made some things crystal-clear. Christopher Hitchens summed it up for so many of us when he wrote that everything he loved was under attack that day. And it continues to be so. Nothing that has happened in the intervening period has lessened the danger. Radical Islamism remains the greatest existential threat we face in the West.
The London I returned to had finally overtaken the now overwhelmingly corporate New York in terms of excitement and possibility, at least if you spent most of your time in the centre. But it was also in thrall to a narrative which seemed to deny the existence of problems and which brooked no opposition. Historically high levels of immigration were having an obvious knock-on effect in terms of housing, social services and school places. Yet to point this out was to be treated as at best a party-pooper, at worse a raving bigot. Discussion had been narrowed right down, taking place between an accepted set of parameters.
And so too had the people who set the rules. Doing the rounds of Westminster think-tank events and debates, it struck me that there had been a significant change in the character of the political class and those who aspired to join it. They were, basically, interchangeable. On most of the big cultural issues of the day there was little to choose between them, something which became particularly clear in my interactions with them after I’d set up the New Culture Forum. It was a stifling atmosphere. That has lessened in recent years. In the case of some of the great supposedly unchallengeable orthodoxies, the change has been remarkably swift. Ten years ago, to be anti-EU was still considered oddball, not just among dinner party guests but by the entrenched London commentariat. With the referendum now on the horizon and campaigns squaring up to each other, the arrogance which gave rise to such dismissive attitudes on Europe and migration has more or less vanished.
I’m writing this in Woolwich, just a mile or so from the family home in which we argued over the news at teatime. It’s also where I’ve written this column over the past year and a half. Cliché it might be, self-serving it might seem, but for some of us there does come a time when wanting to do something overtakes the many joys of sharing one’s observations. We’re at the beginning of our campaign and as I walk across Woolwich market to the Docklands Light Railway in the morning or across Horse Guards Parade on the way home, I can’t quite believe how lucky and excited I am to be doing this. And to be from this place.