John Lanchester’s novel Capital, which I began reading in the plane on the way over, is great preparation for a visit here. In it he takes the inhabitants of a gentrified London street – everyone from the financial trader to the family in the corner shop – through the GFC. It’s a funny, touching, hugely enjoyable read.
The South London street could almost be the one I lived in for the best part of a decade in the late 70s and early 80s. In my time the area was largely unrenovated, with houses divided into cheap flats for students, workers and the lower middle class. Now transformed by money from the City, which is minutes away on the Northern Line, it’s all loft conversions, designer extensions and very expensive cars in the residents’ parking areas.
It’s surreal. Four years after the GFC hit, there still seems to be a lot of money sloshing around. But it’s casino money. The town itself goes on drawing in Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes with money to burn, and the huge gambling house which is the City of London continues to generate mad bonuses. Barclay’s CEO Bob Diamond recently received a £2.7m bonus and had a £5.7m tax bill paid by the bank, bringing his annual take to £17m.
A divided city
The Cameron Government can’t rein in the financial markets because they’re all that give the illusion of a functioning economy. Thatcher and her successors saw to it that there was nothing much left of industry. Now with all indices of growth stalled and the Eurozone on the brink, the Bank of England is talking of more “quantitative easing” – printing loads of paper money, in other words.
For the British people life just gets tougher. Youth unemployment is more than one million. It’s not only the old industrial areas of the north and Midlands that are suffering – the capital itself is being hit hard. A work-for-the-dole team on Jubilee clean-up duties, bussed into the city centre by the private sub-contractor running the program, was left to sleep, cold and unfed, under the bridges with the homeless.
Thousands of the low-paid and unemployed have been forced out of the inner city since the Cameron government cut housing benefits. And a quarter of a million public service jobs went last year, with at least as many more to go.
Behind all the bread and circuses of royal pageantry and Olympic fever, this is a deeply unsettled society. But everyone is holding their breath to see what happens in Europe. It’s a bit like the phoney war.
And yet it’s still invigorating to be here, in this great melting pot of a city which was home to us for so long. In just the first 24 hours we’ve begun catching up with wonderful friends. So if you think this is all getting a bit heavy, stay tuned.