London: A tale of two cities
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the imminent prospect of the Olympics, London has been newly interrogated by many different sources recently. The Economist ran a special report two weeks ago on everything from schools to house prices, novels like John Lanchester’s Capital have tried to distil its vast scope into fictional format already this year and on Tuesday Night Waves (Radio 3) got in on the action with a special programme devoted to the great city.
Two particular highlights stuck out. One was the wonderfully spiky debate between Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange and the Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty about London’s difference from the rest of the UK and the pros and cons of its growth as a stamping ground for footloose tycoons of all flavours. The now-familiar tussle over whether the financial services sector is an undeniable boon by benefit of the consequent tax revenues versus its deleterious effect on things like house prices, swelling them beyond the reach of ordinary families, proved engaging.
Then all eyes settled on the newly-unveiled Shard, eloquent of so much: fancy restaurants, lavish five-star hotel, gold-plated apartments, foreign wealth parked temporarily as a ‘speculative asset’. Chakrabortty made the pertinent point that the only way ordinary Londoners will be able to get inside is by emptying their wallets to the tune of £24.95 for the viewing gallery. Approached from either angle, both agreed London is now very much ‘a tale of two cities’.
The Dickensian phrasing segued neatly into a discussion about culture and London. Much amazement was professed by Matthew Sweet that Robert Bound, culture editor of Monocle, thought it fit to overlook the city when compiling a list of the top twenty-five cities in the world. Bound defended the magazine’s decision claiming that, by virtue of London’s oft-touted position as a cultural capital, it has become rather ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘village-fêtey’. Other guests – Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, and novelist Lesley Lokko – shared some of his doubts, but were on the whole more optimistic. They stressed that London was still a vibrant nesting place for innovative artists. With the Cultural Olympiad upon us, it will be interesting to see which prediction proves truer.
Intriguingly, one of the main points mentioned in the O’Brien-Chakrabortty fisticuffs above was the notion of ‘decentralization’, moving jobs and opportunities – such as the BBC’s Media City in Salford – away from the capital and into other cities. Such a theory is wonderfully demonstrated by the second series of Jay Rayner’s The Kitchen Cabinet (Radio 4) as it roves around the country. This week’s episode saw the foodie show pitch its tent in Brighton where the panel discussed everything from beach picnics to pork scratchings and the history of making ice cream. All oodles of fun with Rayner affable and charming as ever in the presenter’s chair. And without so much as a bat squeak about the Olympics, the Shard, a third runway at Heathrow or the militarization of tower blocks. Who knows, maybe getting away from the great metropolis has its advantages after all.
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