Thursday, 16 October 2014


The last time I spent any decent time in the UK, back in 2007, the atmosphere amongst people in the community was dark, short, rude. I remember a young school kid - no more than 14 - refusing to pick up his bag so an elderly gentleman could sit on the bus beside him. When the elderly man copped an earful of abuse, I was the only one on the packed bus that went to his defence. People kept their eyes down.

On another occasion, I witnessed a well-dressed office worker - morbidly drunk and tripping over his feed as he snaked down the platform - nearly fall onto the tracks at Bond St tube station. Four of us went to his aid.  None of us were English.

My heart was hurt at the time and I was personally in a bad place, but I left England dispirited by the bitterness I had witnessed.

Eight months later when the London riots occurred, I wasn't surprised.  Others have since described the riots as, "an event that had to happen," to relieve the discontent in the city. The cork came off and the pressure relieved.

Fast forward six years and the Olympics have taken place. The overwhelming success of that event echoes now in terms of the optimism of the place.  The immediate and ongoing impression I've had on this trip is of positivity, optimism, friendliness.  A teenage boy smiled at me on the train the other day (and not in a letchy way). I watched a young delivery van driver wait for an old lady to cross the road, with a grin and a wave. I chat to dog owners in the street, all happy, if with that scent of loneliness that dog owners can sometimes exude. British politeness and humility is on show, but also with a easygoing-ness that I don't recall from previous trips.  Perhaps it is the joy of a good summer just spent.

No where is the optimism more evident that in the level of building work underway.  In areas around the Battersea power station, also in East London, score of cranes puncture the skyline.  Property prices are skyrocketing.  The Evening Standard printed a story yesterday about a home in St John's Wood sold to Elizabeth Murdoch for £38.5 million.  It last traded hands in 2007 for £3.26 million.

There are some wonderful new buildings in London, like the Gerkin and the Shard.  And the are some shockers. The St George's Wharf development at Vauxhall, with its gimmicky and ugly bow design feature, is a good example.  Green glass and concrete appear to be the only materials being used in the new buildings popping up like mushrooms. And for this, London is beginning to look Chinese in parts.

Not all of this is necessarily good.

Yesterday I went on a walking tour of East London to see some of the street art of that area. It is quite wonderful and now a drawcard of Brick Lane, just as the curry houses are, or, long before, the silk houses of the Huguenots.

But many of the walls that the street artists paint are being pulled down.  Most artists could not now afford to live in the groovy area.  Massive corporate entities like the Royal Bank of Scotland are encroaching on the leftie artisan, immigrant and small trade vibe that once characterised the area. And with all the glass buildings going up, there won't be any more concrete for the street artists like Roa or Banksie to draw against.

An important political debate about the dirth of affordable housing in the Borough of London is underway.  It is said that some people who have long lived and made up the communities around East London are being forced to move to Manchester or other regional centres. This echoes what is happening around Miller's Point in Sydney, where council-supported residents - who's family association with those homes sometimes go back generations - are being moved against their will to new housing locations.

After what appears to have been lingering economic stagnation post the GFC, it is wonderful to see London as optimistic and flourishing.  But I do hope that the drive for economic prosperity will benefit not only the richest. I hope it will still allow space for those who enrich our society through cultural, as opposed to cash-based pursuits.  I also hope that riches will not harden the wealthy and middle class to the plight of the poor, especially those immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families (be gone, UKIP.)  May London continue to provide opportunity for many of differing backgrounds, as it has for centuries. 

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