:: Article

The Last of London

By John P. Houghton.

London: From Punk to Blair, 2nd edition, eds. Joe Kerr and Andrew Gibson, Reaktion, 2013

The ratio of pigeons to people in London is 1:1. London pigeons, like their human counterparts, are often accused by pigeons from elsewhere in the country of thinking the world begins and ends in the capital. The London pigeons don’t care. They know the other pigeons are really just jealous.

There are no chapters written by an actual pigeon in the collection of 34 essays that make up London: From Punk to Blair, but there is a chapter on ‘Rats with wings: London’s battles with animals’. This reminds us of how many different creatures also share London with us, most of which we have simply stopped noticing.

This connects with a theme running through the book: how London as a physical and psychological place is conceived and contested. How its actual and mental space is taken away from some people, by the forces of the market or social trends, and taken by others.

Joe Kerr’s introduction warns that “as the relentless cleansing of the capital continues apace, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine where… its poorer populations will settle”. And that was the introduction to the first edition, published in 2003, when the bedroom tax was just a dumb and cruel idea and instead of a dumb and cruel policy.

Salman Rushdie writes with fury about the death of families, often immigrant and from ethnic minorities, living in modern slum housing. The piece was written in 1991; until I saw that note at the end, I assumed he was discussing a very recent case.

These issues are still with us today because London often seems incapable of dealing with fundamental challenges. Several of the contributions highlight the ways in which London has failed to get a grip on its creaking infrastructure. Joe Kerr’s chapter ‘Blowdown’ describes the rise and fall of London’s tower blocks; once seen as the solution to the infinite housing crisis, now seen as monuments to municipal folly.

Space in London is divided up in other ways. Jenny Bavidge and Andrew Gibson describe how the capital’s children are “more and more restricted as their place to play gets smaller”. Niran Abbas reminds us that our space is invaded, without us knowing most of the time, about 300 times per day by the city’s 150,000 CCTV cameras. London’s gay community has more space open to it, as old prejudices die out, but as Mark W. Turner points out, much of that space is intensely commercialised and reflect some narrow and “very specific virtues: youth, maleness and whiteness”.

London: From Punk to Blair isn’t a love letter to London, in the way that some collections of essays develop an authorial group-think as the writers fall in love with their shared subject. Both the tone and the content are brilliantly heterodox. There are some well-known names amid the collection – Rushdie, Hanif Kureshi, the always brilliant Patrick Keiller (and Patrick Wright) — as well as newer writers and experts on particular subjects (Nicholas Royle, Tom McCarthy).

Instead of trying to capture London in a book, Kerr and Gibson have gathered a group of people with interesting perspective and stories to tell. They reflect London’s glories, and its gross inequalities, its gleaming shards and its seedy underbelly.

I’ve read some rotten books about London so I was a bit nervous approaching London: From Punk to Blair. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a great collection of writing.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 16th, 2013.