arts and culture, Detroit, Edward Burra, Gil Scott Heron, Hanif Kureishi, Ian Dury, India, J Dilla, Kathy Burke, kolkata, London, Lord Kitchener calypsonian, MoodyMann, Paul Weller, politics, pop culture, post-racial, Rabindranath Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Roy Williams, Sam Selvon, Windrush
Those wise words were penned what now feels like several lifetimes ago by the celebrated Trinidadian writer, Samuel Selvon. Yet if the London he described, the one experienced as routinized pathos by the Windrush generation, was a place of intense loneliness and deferred dreams, then the city it has subsequently become is no less unforgiving. Where his ‘Lonely Londoners’ found themselves up against the logic of fading empire, more recent arrivals are pressed into ever more inventive ways of servicing its insatiable appetites – for sex, for money, for the myriad delusions of grandeur. And still they keep coming. For every hard luck story, there’s yet another promising that today will be the day the sun finally peeps out from behind the clouds. And when it does, my friend, when it does…
…there’s always the presence of that other Samuel (Johnson), with his own homily to this oddball of a city. ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ The clue of course is in the word ‘afford’, but if London’s greasy spoons are now largely free wi-fi hotspots, and its old music halls prime real estate or kitsch heritage sites, rumours of that subterranean city still occasionally surface in the self-regulation of the middle classes around the bowdlerised vernacular of the capital’s streets. In its markets, on its buses, though only in particular areas. And then, in the words of yet another Samuel (Beckett), ‘silence pours in…like water into a sinking ship.’
In a way too, what’s heartening is how this place still manages, in spite of the best efforts of its toff mayor and his acolytes, to gently take the piss out of itself. When the recent Olympics, the euphemistically termed ‘London 2012’, passed off without incident, and more to the point when the tubes (and trains) actually ran on time for that remarkable fortnight, no one was more surprised than Londoners themselves. Yet for all the forelock tugging, there were still plenty of voices prepared to point out how telling it was that the only time in living memory the transport infrastructure seemed to run efficiently was really for the benefit of foreign dignitaries and big bucks tourism rather than for that of workaday Londoners. They also correctly predicted that the moment said dignitaries left town, it would be business as usual with ‘leaves on the line’ or ‘the wrong kind of snow’. Yes it was nice for that brief period that things seemed to function properly, but the price paid, in security lockdowns, missiles mounted on top of residential tower blocks, and wholesale rubberstamping of ‘the surveillance state’, did not go unremarked.
That said, those dissident voices are not as strong as they once were. When we were kids, it felt like the whole of Lewisham showed up one fine day ‘when the two sevens clashed’ to let the National Front, and their armed police protectorate, know that they weren’t welcome. Now the lines are more blurred, postcode murder the lethal (and logical) consequence of a culture of fuck-all. Or one might add, the inevitable byproduct of all that atrophied individualism. Something in the interim – greed, capital, the legacy of Thatcher? – has warped the locational machinery of ‘youth’ such that their Hobbesian instinct can only seem to play out in a hyper parochial present. Still, we all came from somewhere (philosophically, physically), especially the ones who never claim that. This town, that postcode, never enough by itself to explain how we ended up here. India, Africa, Caribbean, and come on Farrage, ‘fess up, squire, there’s a bit of French in there, n’est ce pas? The faint hope that perhaps in those journeys there lingers some residual memory, before the internecine squabbles, of when we were kids, kings, kin…
Detroit to Deptford, Kingston to Calcutta. Criss-crossing, occasionally locking horns. Mostly just being though. And being here. And that needs saying in this age of jihadi diaspora; of absurdist cruelty and its sultanate dreams; of internecine turf wars every bit as pointless as those waged at the Somme; of swivel eyed nostalgia for a land that never was, and selective amnesia as the means to get there. Of the multiple breakdowns of ‘identity politics’ and its seductive allure, to riff on Somerset Maugham, as ‘a sunny place for shady people.’
Set against that, it must be said, we do still have the culture, the actual living, breathing mechanism of this low slung metropolis. Its films, its fun, yes, its fuckries too. A unique buffer against the terrifying grain of bourgeois absolutism. It’s there, in the rerouted spirit of Tagore, or of that other poet laureate, Ian Dury. And it’s there in the improv genius of Ravi Shankar as much as in the bone shaking bass of Dilla, earlier echoes seeping through of the Four Aces in Dalston or of post partition Calcutta. More border crossings evidenced by the graduation of MJ Cole from playing oboe and studying at the Royal College of Music to cerebrally styled UK garage don. And in the outer city, by classically trained pianist, LTJ Bukem, forsaking the academy to bring a compositional leftfield to an earlier breakbeat scene. On celluloid too, it’s there in ‘Performance’, in its acid-fried antidote to swinging London. Or in the profane survivalism of ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ and dissident rumble of ‘Babylon’. And from vernacular life, to the page, or stage, then back again, in so many guises, from Sam Selvon to Roy Williams, Hanif Kureishi to Paul Weller.
Mostly, though, it’s just there, in speech and shape and style. And it’s far too precious to be ceded to the absolutists. In his book, ‘The Days and Nights of London Now’, Craig Taylor describes this city as: ‘Stage, Mecca, my water, my oxygen. London as cell, jail and favour.’ He goes on to wisely observe that ‘living history is thrilling, especially in an eloquent city, in a talkative town, in a place where people fought to get here, fought to stay here, fought to get out.’
A life worth fighting for, and a culture worth defending. True to form, when the big questions are at hand, Gil Scott Heron can always be relied upon to supply a lyric, and it suddenly seems so obvious what we need to do, as well as what we need to guard against:
‘So if you see the vulture coming flying circles in your mind, remember there is no escaping for he will follow close behind. Oh he promised me a battle. A battle for your soul and mine.’
Of course this being a city of gallows humour, which quickly understood that it was West Ham rather than England who were responsible for this nation’s solitary World Cup triumph, nothing captures its enduring spirit better than this recent exchange on the letters page of a well known broadsheet. In response to Helena Bonham Carter, who had earlier been lamenting how hard it is ‘to be beautiful and middle-class’, this, from fellow actress, comedienne, writer and all round good (cockney) egg, Kathy Burke: ‘As someone who is ugly and working class, I would like to say, ‘Fuck off!’
Kitchener had it right on the Tilbury Docks. ‘London is the place for me’. Some of us fought to get here, or stay here. And as the old adage goes, you don’t shit where you eat. So a bit of free advice for the assorted pond scum of jihadis, or postcode killers, or a certain kind of ‘little Englander’, listen to Kathy Burke. For now at least she speaks for all of us.