June 20th, 2005


For whom the siren wails

I'm in London, staying at New Cross. Fly to New York on Wednesday. It's taking me a while to readjust to this city. In fact, I refuse to readjust to this city. This city is just wrong in so many ways (you have to admit it's never boring, though). The traffic in New Cross is appalling on a Saturday night at 1am, jammed solid. Lots of people in pimp rides, extremely expensive Mercs and BMWs with tinted glass and ferocious boomy music. Where do they get the money? And what's the point, when you just end up in a traffic jam in an ugly one-way system? Police cars scream by every ten minutes with headlights flashing, ambulances cart the shot, the run-over and the knifed off to hospital, shark minicabs prowl. London just feels, well, brutal.

The next day I go with Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to the Goldsmiths BA Fine Art degree show. It's scorchingly hot and I'm ravenously hungry, but the Goldsmiths cafe is shut. I munch toxic British food -Maltezers, roast beef-flavoured crisps, sickly sweet Britvic-to keep my hunger at bay as I look at the art. The art, although it's mostly made by foreign students, reflects the ugly brutality of the city back to me. There's an installation of a toxic, putrefying works canteen by someone called Rob Bellman. He stands behind the hatch of his stinky installation wearing a radiation suit and croaking "Can I take your order please?" (Suddenly I'm not hungry any more.) There's a security camera woven from grey carpet fibre. There's a video called "Shitting and Pissing in the College" in which a woman pisses and shits in the college. There's another where a mechanic eases himself under cars, then under his crappy home furniture, a multi-screen installation where people just stare, glazed, occasionally screaming. There's a clip of Francis Bacon reacting to the sound of an explosion, clapping his hands to his ears and swivelling around with the horrified expression of one of his own paintings. Ugliness and menace prevail, and you get the impression that the students are simultaneously disgusted by their environment, and trying to turn all its failings into some new form of terrible beauty.

Goldsmiths has some shockingly wrecked buildings. However you cut London, wherever you stay, the same basic textures are to be found. Sure, there'll be some flashy iconic high-profile new building (Goldsmiths has one, a big Tokyo-ish metal and glass tower with a curly trellis of bent steel on top and great views out over the city's other iconic buildings; the dome, the gherkin, the eye...), but most of the buildings will be peely-wally, chopped around, subdivided and ruined by mean insensitive landlords with exchange value rather than use value in mind, full of blind corners, pointless steps, awkward bathrooms, and ghastly grey fitted carpet. Sometimes they'll be WW2 nissen huts which should have been pulled down in 1947 but have somehow survived and even acquired a sort of tawdry charm. They'll be terrace houses with St George flags in the window.

If London wins the bid for the 2012 Olympics no doubt this incongruity between flashy cars and buildings and the basic mean crapness, inefficiency, poverty and ugliness of most of the city's infrastructure will become even more obvious. What's more, the basic sports metaphor of winners and losers will underscore the city's Darwinian philosophy. Unfortunately the current EU chaos has made it look like London might swing into the lead as some kind of model for all the cities of Europe. But the city's really only a poster child for ugly polarities and brutalities. Another siren screams by as I write this line.

Even outside Goldsmiths there are no cafes open. The only place you can buy food is a pub called The Hobgoblin. The signs on the door state that drug dealers and users will be ejected without refund (refund for what, their drugs or their drinks?) and that handbag thieves have been operating on the premises. The food I eat is an English roast-up, quite vile and tasteless. Later, for dinner, I head with my friends to Whitechapel. A big sign outside the tube station tells me that muggings happen in the area. As I walk towards my favourite restaurant on my favourite London street (Sweet and Spicy on Brick Lane) my trousers and eyepatch are mercilessly mocked by chavs, drunks and Asian wideboys. It's "just a bit of fun", but it's "fun" I don't generally have to deal with in Berlin. Later, on Hoxton Square, there's a fight between shaven-headed white louts (British people look like Australians in the hot weather). "I heard what Pauline done!" "Pauline's not my missus! Come here and say that!" And soon fists are flying, skulls crunch against concrete, blood mingles with beer, and another police siren splits indifferent London ears with yet more intimations of ultraviolence.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, let me show you how literally this stuff impacts on lives. I didn't know andypop, but he was in the band Linus and made comics. He sometimes commented on Click Opera (his last comment was about how he preferred herbal tea to coffee). Andy was in one of those ambulances last week after being hit by a motorbike on the Bethnal Green Road, coming out of a gig. The motorcyclist didn't even stop. Andy went into a coma. He didn't survive. His last entry is about a police standoff in Dalston.