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The Golden Age of London, 1980-2020?

It’s a commonplace observation, revealed in numerous interviews and heartfelt observations expressed online, that a pandemic takes away the benefits and increases the costs and dangers of living in a city. According to surveys conducted for the London Assembly Housing Committee in August 2020 14% of the population of London wants to move out and 46% of those moving home want to leave the city. In the first six months affected by the virus house average house prices in London fell by 2% whereas the provincial average rose by the same amount.

This is not a new phenomenon; in fact, arguably, it is as old as cities and plagues, but it is new to most of those experiencing it because London’s stock has been on the up for forty years after a period of decline before that. In 1939 London was the biggest city in the world with 8.6 million people (though one should acknowledge that even though that figure is probably fairly accurate the figures for some of its rivals probably are not), a figure which descended to about 6.8 million by the 1970s. By 2018 it was bigger than ever at just under nine million, though, of course, its relative demographic size had plummeted – to around 37th on most lists. But this hardly mattered: when we talked of urban decay and revival in this period total population was of little or no importance. What was important is that culturally, financially and in terms of its image London was a “global city” in the sense explored by such writers as Peter Hall and Saskia Sassen. That is it was high on everybody’s lists of cities they regarded as important and permanently in the top three as a tourist destination. And it’s worth reflecting that many of the most notable attractions in London are not those bequeathed by history, but creations of our own age including the Eye, the O2, Covent Garden, Tate Modern, the Shard, the Thames Path, the Millennium Bridge and many others.

But the current situation seems like a sudden precipitous fall back to the world of the 1970s and its debate about “urban decay”. In those days London’s decline was assumed, part of the general phenomenon of “urban decay”. All over the Anglophone world, at least, urban flight and suburbanisation seemed as normal a process as economic growth. Upwardly mobile people wanted more space; they also wanted cars and cars and cities were a bad fit. Therefore the more able would leave creating a vicious spiral of social and ethnic change, erosion of property values and the fiscal base leading to poorer facilities (for example, schools) making cities even less attractive to live in. Ruth Glass wrote influentially about “anti-urbanism” – though this thesis applied primarily to the English-speaking world. Latin societies with their cafe culture, their citte vecchie and their passeggiate (to use their Italian variants) were thought to be capable of maintaining the appeal of the inner city as a place to live.

In 1975 I moved temporarily from Warwick to Stanford where the debate about the future of the city had moved up a gear. In California their consideration of future urban decline was far more aware of the possible consequences of the coming communications revolution than we were in England. They roughly envisaged the world we live in now and my most striking memory of this is of a visiting lecturer announcing, “In the future you will be able to run most businesses from a mountain top in Montana”. On the Urban Studies programme at Stanford students were required to read George Sternlieb’s Swiftian essay, “The City as a Sandlot” which saw the only inhabitants of cities in the future as being an unemployable underclass. This sort of idea inspired a number of dystopian movies, perhaps most notably Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) in which city dwellers are not allowed to leave the city and are used as prostitutes – and eventually as a food source – by the the more privileged extra-urban classes.

But in fact these dire visions of the future of the city proved to be a combination of miscalculation and self-denying prophecy. They miscalculated the attractions of the city partly because they didn’t really factor in social change. What I mean is that if everyone got married at the age of twenty-three, had two children and remained married for life then the priorities of space and security might have taken enormous numbers of people out of cities. But what actually happened was that fewer and fewer people behaved like that; a number vastly greater than expected responded to the pull of the city, its vast numbers and its possibilities. I suppose we can call this Sex and the City syndrome. Also, it turned out that the theory of the world city was considerably more important than some of the theories of decline: London and New York got richer and more gentrified and became safer and cleaner along the way. And the self-denying prophecy aspect is policy, a whole raft of ideas which were better than their predecessors. But policy doesn’t make a lot of difference if the tide is heavily against you and it proved much easier to turn things round in London and New York than in Liverpool and Detroit. The obvious comparison on this side of the Atlantic is the comparison between the dramatic success of the London Docklands Development Corporation and the long struggle of its Liverpool equivalent. In hindsight, many commentators seemed to want to say that of course the London docklands policy was a success. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of being involved in the renewal of an area at the heart of a global city? But that is not how it was seen before it became successful.

But then came Covid and a rapid descent back into the world of SPACE GOOD, PROXIMITY BAD. In the end everyone’s guess as to the extent of the urban diaspora will be guided by their own tastes and reactions and I am a laboratory specimen of anti-urbanism, the sort of person who finds it difficult to imagine why anyone with a choice would want to live in a city. I was always like that: at the age of twenty and with an unbeatable stack of credentials (and before Weimar-style inflation eroded the value of such things) I was offered a range of plumb jobs without even applying for them. These included the BBC and the Civil Service as well as journalism and the City. The only trouble was that all these jobs were in London and I couldn’t bear the thought of living in London. In a Johnsonian spirit (Samuel not Boris) you might ask what I had against the city with “all that life can afford”. The simple answer is that it couldn’t afford me the things that I wanted which included a large, cheap house (then, anyway), a garden to grow vegetables and herbs in and an easy stroll to the tennis club, the cricket club and the open countryside. My milieu was and is the Nice Town with lots of facilities and interesting people, but not too big.

In any case London seemed to me to be positively unpleasant in several different ways. Admittedly. it is not so dark or dirty or derelict as it was when I was twenty, but the Underground, which always seemed risibly weird to someone brought up to greet everyone I met seems even more alien these days – and, with the virus around, menacing as well. I was always suspicious of the idea that London had a high standard of living. I had been told by wise old men in Lancashire that, whereas we were always richer than we looked, Southerners or Londoners (it varied) are generally poorer than they look. After all how rich can a place be if the majority of households don’t even own their own home (a condition London shares only with Oxford and Cambridge in England: note the strength of the Labour Party in all three cities)? And even many of those who do own homes in London are paying mighty mortgages whereas in the provinces there are ten million owner-occupied households with no mortgages. I was convinced as well as amused by the passages in John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital where he demonstrates in a Micawberish spirit that his banker character, Roger Yount, can be extremely highly paid but still have appalling financial problems.

As a deeply provincial person much of what I like and dislike about the big city is encapsulated in my experience of parties in London. I’ve been attending them all my life and I’ve managed a wide variety including literary, journalistic, academic and sporting, but also folk who have it in common that they have a lot of money; at one point I even held the rank of “country member” in a London dining club. When compared with provincial parties they tend to be much more specialised and much more edgy and conscious of status. People try to put each other down at London parties in ways that in the provinces would either go unrecognised or start a fight. They are rather more like student parties in their suggestion of possibility than they are like a typical provincial party where people just want to unwind. I enjoy all this – and collect celebrity anecdotes with the best of them – but I’m always glad I have a home to go to. In fact I’ve had several nightmares in which I realise that I’m in London, but that I have no train home, that I actually live there.

The nightmare in the collective and allegorical sense takes us back fifty years. It is of derelict cities and a surburbanised and overbuilt countryside. There are two factors which I hope will mitigate against this. One is that the process of flight will be self-correcting; when people leave property prices go down and subsequently people find it more difficult to leave. The other is the question of whether, post-Brexit as well as post-Covid, London will retain its “global” status. All of this requires some magic, some fairy dust. I do not believe that the streets of London are paved with gold, even metaphorically. Nor do I believe that the city offers “all that life can afford”. But I do want other people to believe these propositions which gives them a kind of truth.

Lincoln Allison October 2020

(An edited version of this article was published in The Critic in December 2020.)