Marketing the City of the dreadful night

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The Independent Culture
THE CITY of London in the small hours is no place to be. Yet again, last week, I found myself wandering aimlessly around, worrying. I worried about why I am wandering aimlessly around the City, worrying; but, more than that, I worried that I am growing more stupid with every year that passes.

That, for example, is a very stupid remark. What I should do is give the impression of increasing maturity, of ever-growing wisdom, of the certainty born of life's experience. But I cannot do it. It would be simply untrue. I know nothing and understand far less than I did when I was 20, and, to be honest, it's a bit of a bugger.

Take, for example, the City. In the middle of the night, thin mist drifting on a small, bitter wind, it exercises a terrible, inchoate melancholy; always did. But when I was 20, I thought - I knew - that as I grew older, the source of that melancholy would reveal itself. I knew I would understand why. I knew I would be right. And I knew I would be able to explain it.

All that happened was that the prospect of understanding receded. TS Eliot's "objective correlative", from being a mere literary device, became a way of life. I can no longer assign cause and effect to my moods and irrational responses; all I can do is recite to myself the sequence of observations which led me there. The insane babbling narrative continues, and I am become like an aboriginal, walking through my foggy concrete Outback, singing the world into existence: a splash of lamplight, a burglar alarm howling foolishly; flat and supercilious bank facades, preposterous plastic road-blocks, a glum copper hiding in a doorway; a wrought-iron link-holder outside a merchant's house, offices now; fish-ghosts at the old Billingsgate market.

And what does this all add up to? Nothing more than a sense of dislocation, of connections broken and diversity expunged. Nobody lives here any more, in the City; nobody is born; nobody dies, except of a sudden heart-attack across the desk (soon re-allocated, the corpse shipped out in an undertaker's van to East Grinstead and oblivion). Humanity is only admitted if it does its best to ape the qualities of the buildings, which seem barely like buildings at all; more as if we had been superseded by a race of glossy machines who had put up these great structures as monuments to themselves.

The worst moments come when you turn a corner and there, unexpectedly, is a small corner, an alley or courtyard which the developers forgot, or couldn't get their hands on. It's no longer inhabited, of course; merely occupied by smooth-faced accountants or honking phoneys in the lawyering trade. But there it stands, a reminder of what we have lost.

I'm not sure what that is, but I think it may be just... mess. Crooked walls, jammed windows, roll-top desks piled with papers; handwritten memoranda, old tools with worn wooden handles, uneven lighting, wonky typewriters, inexplicably tiny rooms off rickety staircases, low archways opening on to grimy courtyards, precarious one-man businesses, lodgers in the third floor back, inefficiency, waste and the muggy huddle of the human slum. In short, texture.

We don't have time for texture, now. One machine looks like another machine. We work and play with luminescent pixels behind glass screens, no longer willing to handle things. Once, the importer could smell his timber and spices from the counting-house desk; once, newspaper offices were heavy with the balsamic hogo of ink, and shuddered each evening when the presses began to roll. Now all that is done on the outskirts, on terrible industrial estates, haunted by an endless rain and lorries splashing through the mud. We no longer want to see or touch the source of our money. Morlocks with muscles and slovenly speech can do all that, at least until we can get rid of them, too, and replace them with machines. Efficient? Of course. As is a McDonald's rissole, eaten on the hoof.

And so we come to Mrs Virginia Bottomley. This ridiculous person and her fatuous joke "Heritage" Department recently announced a new "logo" for London: three ghosts rising like pestilence above the word "LONDON", which itself appears to be floating in a little splodge of pus. Mrs Bottomley, of course, talked bollocks about the whole dismal little enterprise. Someone called Haynes, who created the thing, talked bollocks about the meaning of her infantile daub and said that "visitors see the people of London as very friendly and approachable," which suggests that the visitors and Mrs Bottomley deserve each other. And a person called Colin, head of the London Tourist Board, said that people who think the logo stinks "should come into the real world and talk to our customers rather than pontificating their views," which comment, by its authoritarian and prescriptive nature, is of course far more pontifical than mere critical abuse.

In the hour before dawn, I found myself by London Bridge, gazing across the Thames towards Borough, the setting for an old love-affair which ended in anguish and unutterable despair. There is no tranquillity in which such emotions can be recollected, but I remembered the one lesson it had taught me: you can never second-guess what someone else wants you to be, nor can you ever become it. Bottomley and Colin believe they know what the tourists want us to be, and have hired Haynes to draw up the small-ad.

But they are wrong. London is not friendly, approachable, primary-coloured and rich in accessible heritage. London is an old, tired, grumpy city, raped by the money-men, stripped of her dignity, but still possessed of a terrible power and mystery which all Colin and Bottomley's fake repro tat can do nothing to diminish. As for the tourists... if they want a logo for the tourists, try this: an old witch on her back with her legs apart, beckoning. At least it would be honest. !