London Loves? | Pushing the Wave

London Loves?

Culture, 24 February 2023
by L.A. Davenport
The Thames at Low Tide
The Thames at low tide
Last week, I was back in London for a couple of days. It is always an interesting, and somewhat conflicting, experience going back to that grandest of grand cities.

You see, I lived there for 18 years, and it’s easy to be nostalgic, even though, in reality, I often had a love–hate relationship with the capital. And yet it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that it has changed almost beyond all recognition, especially if one thinks of the spirit of the place, since the mid-1990s. And I miss it.

My vision of London, and what to expect from it, was formed by listening on repeat to the 1994 classic album Parklife, by Blur (see below). Not so much the bright, shiny songs on the first side, but the darker, heavy, more introspective tracks on the second. Jubilee, London Loves and Trouble in the Message Centre created a soundscape that matched with what I saw on my trips to the capital while I was a student, and when I moved there in 1996.

It was a noisy, belching, grinding city, a dirty playground open to all, where anyone with a bit of wit and a lot of grit could achieve pretty much anything they wanted, if they pushed hard enough at it. I don’t know why, but an abiding image from that era was seeing jack-the-lads running down the street, their arms laden with trays of elicit designer perfume, chased by coppers on the beat. That and the ongoing repairs from IRA bombings.

London seemed much more on a human scale that it is now, and of course had far fewer people living in it, which was to its advantage. It wasn’t so crowded all the time, the infrastructure and the facilities weren’t under so much pressure, and the bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants were yet to be strangled by enormous rents and charges, and so could flourish in a more favourable environment.

There seemed to be more contact between the different layers and elements of society. Most people went to the same bars Yes, it was much less cosmopolitan that it is now, in the sense of there being fewer trinkets and restaurants from around the world, but it was, in other ways, more worldly, more classless. The ladder for advancement hadn’t yet been pulled up and the door closed in our faces.

People were also less self-conscious in those days, and got on more with actual living rather than worrying about the appearance of living. It’s almost a hackneyed cliché to despair over the impact of social media on our lives, but people preen much more now than they used to, and talk much less to each other, which diminishes us all.

Yes, the lads culture could be vicious, especially when viewed through our current cultural lens, but we were in the tail-end of a cultural flux, in which the anger from the post-rave period had yet to be suffocated by the bland march of relentless consumerism, and at least it espoused a new kind of freedom.

London still regarded itself very highly, of course, in the 1990s but in a more ironic way than it does now. It was no longer a world-leading city; it was barely keeping up with Paris, and no-one seemed to mind too much. Apart from the politicians, that is, who were led by their egos into slowly but inexorably ripping out London’s soul so they could see themselves reflected in the shiny, mirrored surfaces of endless glass edifices that shouted to the world: WE ARE SOMEBODY.

But nobody ever got to be somebody by doing that. All you become is a hollowed-out, soulless parody, which is what one finds now when one stalks the sanitised streets of what is supposedly a ‘global city’, seeking engagement but finding only customer-facing retail agents.

When did shopping become a hobby, a destination, an objective in itself, a vapid answer to the question of what to provide for all these new millions of people to do when they are not working (not forgetting the millions upon millions who visit on holiday)? Big retailers can raise the money to finance new building projects, I know, but surely London, a city steeped in so much history that one almost doesn’t know where to start when trying to distill its essence, can do better than to replace everything of interest with yet another shopping experience?

Apparently not.

It is as if everyone turned on the lights one day and saw, for the first time, all the dark, dusty, forgotten corners of the city, and thought they needed to go.

It is possible to live in a sealed, sterilised laboratory for modern commerce, where everything is geared towards providing a safe, family experience to the non-existent average person, but human beings are not made that way. They thrive on contrast. Art and creativity thrives on contrast. Wipe away all the dirt and we become sick. Our bodies, our minds, can’t cope.

It’s all relative, of course. When I watched London Nobody Knows, a fabulous documentary fronted by James Mason, for the first time, I marvelled at how much someone from the late 1960s, who had already seen so much that was fascinating and unique about London disappear, would react if they were transported to the late 1990s.

I thought about all this again when I was catching up on my stock of The Week magazines, and read a profile of former East End criminal Terry Jackson. His rough-and-tumble world of capitalist gangsterism has gone utterly, to be replaced by, well, not very much if you happen to live anywhere east of the City.

Personally, I think that governments and commercial forces have stumbled upon a recipe for neutering what was the working classes and keeping them permanently underfoot, and they intend to hold them there while they turn the rest of the world, London in this case, into a playground for the financially solvent.

One can sound very easily like a moaning old man talking like this, railing against the apparent decline of society, with everything better when I was a boy, etc, etc. But I don’t believe in that, I think it’s nonsense. I argue simply that London has been ruined and is far less alive now than it was three decades ago, even if we can more easily get around town, and there are more types of non-dairy milk available in the coffee shops.
One highlight of my trip to the capital was a return to the Royal Academy, to see their exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World. Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, which runs until April 10.

It is fascinating, and in places brilliant. There are, of course, masterpieces by Goya and Velázquez, but aside from those blockbuster items, there is plenty to illuminate and broaden one’s understanding of Spanish and Hispanic culture, and the relationship between the two.

There are some niggles, however. It’s a huge exhibition, which should leave one replete artistically speaking, but it covers so much ground that nothing is really explored in enough depth to be satisfying. And the more modern works can sometimes suffer when seen straight after masterworks by venerated artists of the more distant past. It’s not just that there is less ambition in their works, but they are less accomplished in their execution.

That said, I would encourage anyone to go and see the exhibition, especially as it represents the vision of a single museum, which wanted to capture as broad a view of the Spanish visual arts as possible. As such, it is a very particular version of very specific view on what collecting means, and its purpose when presenting that collection to the world. It is surely impossible for someone, no matter the size of their fortune, to do the same nowadays, at least for any country or culture in the developed world, and maybe anywhere in the world.
This week, I finally got a chance to listen to my LP of American Gurl, the second album by Kilo Kish.

Stylistically, it’s a huge, if very enjoyable, jump from her first, Reflections in Real Time, which is one of the most striking and brilliant debut albums by any artist, and which demonstrated her sensitivity and lyrical and musical talents to great effect. Of course, it is less of a leap from one album to the other if one considers the EPs that she realised in the meantime, but there remains an enormous gulf between the two.

Nevertheless, I am all for big changes in approach between albums (cf. David Bowie), and I have to admire Kilo Kish for being so brave not only in expressing herself in all her kaleidoscope colours but also in following her musical vision with such conviction. I am looking forward to getting to know American Gurl better.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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London Loves? | Pushing the Wave