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The British Colossus

Has the nature of London changed — or stayed the same over the last 100 years?

August 18, 2003

Has the nature of London changed — or stayed the same over the last 100 years?

It is the best of cities, it is the worst of cities. No great metropolis of the world has inspired more great literature since the Athens of Pericles.

None has been more hated for its anonymous, pedestrian, philistine greed. No great city has been safer and more pleasant for its populace to live in.

None has sheltered and sustained so much depravity on so great a scale. No city in modern history, not even New York, has been so potent a metaphor for the world’s imagination. None has generated more enervating gloom to those who live amid its vast precincts.

And still today, it is the Colossus of Britain and — far less acknowledged — that of all Europe. For only Paris can rival it for size and population, sophistication and history, scale and wealth. It is, of course, London. How could it be anything else?

In recent decades, the awesome scale and diversity of London — and the dynamism and crushing despair it generates — have been lost in the world’s imagination.

The immigrant dramas of New York, and the rising metropolises of the Third World — especially those of East Asia, led by Tokyo and Beijing — have attracted admiration, fear and wonder instead.

But the cozy respectability that London has worn in the public eye for most of the past century is a misleading one. And it is wearing thin.

In recent decades, London’s old, inspiring turbulent reality has been reasserting itself like an elemental monster rising from the bowels of the earth.

From Tokyo to New York, other cities are seen as generators of world capitalism. Yet, it was the City of London — with its glistening crystal towers — that rode its Big Bang of 1987 to a renewed era of wealth.

Triumphantly, it imposed its values and seeded its dreams all across the global economy.

London is at once the most warmly reassuring and terrifyingly gothic of cities. It was the home of writers Shakespeare and Browning — and also of Jack the Ripper and the Kray Brothers, who infamously organized crime in London's East End.

It was the site of Mary Poppins — and the horror film Ten Rillington Place. As Dr. Samuel Johnson so famously said, one can only be tired of it when one is tired of life.

Yet, who still remembers that its smog was a devouring monster that choked the existence out of untold millions over the centuries — and did so on a scale Los Angeles never dreamed of.

And half a century ago, it was the scene of the worst environmental disaster in modern human history, with a death toll at least twice that of Bhopal, India in 1984. Yet, almost nobody is aware of this catastrophe.

It was the diesel-engine red buses, introduced only a few years before, that played a key role in generating the Great Killer Smog of December 1952. This disaster cost the lives of 4,000 people in the following days — twice the 2,000 who died in the Union Carbide plant disaster in Bhopal.

Recent research has revealed that the real death toll was far higher. Altogether, it is likely that some 12,000 people were killed by the smog — a significant increase from the established death rates at the time.

The scale of the disaster, though recognized all too well by those who endured it, was successfully covered up for decades. It was the ministers of Winston Churchill’s Conservative government of the time, led by Harold Macmillan, who were most responsible for it.

The British government succeeded in their cover-up by distributing ineffective gas masks to citizens and attributing many of the deaths from the smog to influenza.

Macmillan was even quoted as telling his cabinet, "We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy — and that is half the battle nowadays."

The way in which London recreated itself — and especially its image — is amazing. For centuries, the city reveled in its brutish, violent, malevolent, potent, sexual, freewheeling, glittering glory.

Over the past century, however, it managed to adorn itself with the far more modest and quietly comforting respectability of decent, retiring suburbia.

At the same time, today's London is no longer the city of respectable Queen Victoria, inspiring Churchill and confident, proper and polite legions of laborers wearing endless bowler hats — and wielding neatly furled umbrellas, or “brollies.”

In no major contemporary city of Europe or North America are you more likely to see gangs of swaggering youths strut their stuff and scatter profanities and occasional violence on public transport.

In no other great city do you see the extremes of wealth and poverty growing apart at such a pace — and on such a scale.

Over the past two decades, waves of young people — stripped of their hope of careers by the collapse of the great traditional heavy industries of the North of England and Scotland in the early 1980s — have swept into the city. And now they add a new strain of anonymous despair to its teeming crowds.

From the vantage point of a threateningly uncertain young 21st century, the cozy London of the Welfare State and the Luftwaffe Blitz, of Victorian social propriety and tea shops with crumpets, can be seen now as only a fleeting, passing stage.

In Victorian times, it stretched thin indeed over the heaving masses of poverty and despair — something caught well in the recent splendid BBC Victorian period drama “The Murder Rooms.”

It managed to weave murder mysteries around the early career of Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes.

The loss of a million British — one-third of all the young men in Britain between the ages of 18 to 45 killed or seriously injured — during World War I gave the city its safe, respectable, fragile cozy feel for most of the ensuing half-century.

The women of London during those decades were far more likely to be widows and spinsters with nowhere to go other than the then well-known Lyons Teashops. No wonder the mourning and bereaved lost their taste for vulgarity and excess for so long.

It was not until the swinging 60s, that the old, but far more enduring and typical, vibrant London reasserted herself. But London had always been swinging. The rhythm had only stalled for a single generation.

Do you love it? Do you loathe it? Either way, go back — and think again. For it will always have new unexpected delights and shocks to confound you. And rest assured, you will never comprehend it all. No one can.