Letter from London: A Pall Over St Paul’s

St. Paul’s and Es Devlin’s sculpture of St. Paul’s at the Tate Modern. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Over thirty years ago, while getting my bearings after living abroad, I was walking to Soho from Greenwich. After footslogging it for about two hours, I reached St Paul’s Cathedral. Just thirty minutes to go, I was telling myself, parched and slightly hungry. Looking up, I encountered in the sunlight four or five mysterious Wandsmen moping about on the cathedral’s famously wide steps. These were the fictitious-looking folk normally policing the pews inside, who in fact I ended up writing a feature about for the Evening Standard a year or so later playfully headlined ‘God’s bouncers’. They include women now but at the time resembled an all-male cast for an old black and white Ealing comedy with someone like Alastair Sim or Ian Carmichael playing the lead — an Archbishop perhaps. Today, St Paul’s has announced it is getting a brand new public square but what has really caught the eye of late has been its website labelling Winston Churchill a ‘white supremacist’ and ‘unashamed imperialist’, a description that was in fact up for over a year. It has since been taken down. It still acknowledging Churchill’s importance in fighting the Nazis but now states in addition he was ‘a figure of controversy, especially when viewed from a modern perspective’. It actually amazes me how much the Church of England has become a kind of last-stop battleground for some of the more contemporary and important debates of the day, with particularly informed criticism reserved for government, it seems.

Elsewhere, poor air quality continues to spread through the capital, so nothing new there. It still circulates like a sinister guest at a party already of poisonous snakes. Life itself has many Londoners nowadays taking long deep breaths of desperation. You only have to look around to see that. But it seems that long after Churchill and the clearing of the smoke from the Blitz, former Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe, now Lord Coe, a middle-distance runner I used to admire along with Ovett and Cram, reckons London won’t be up for major sports events in the future — such as the World Athletics Championships — because of its atrocious air quality.

Everywhere in this great city of ours has one breach or another of World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. As toxic compounds continue to play hell with everyone’s systems, it is black and Asian groups, immigrants and the poorest who suffer most — a social pattern readers of CounterPunch will already be familiar with the world over. We know this about London because of a City Hall study written after the death of little nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, whose warm-hearted mother once disarmed me terribly outside our local railway station while handing out leaflets. ‘My daughter died from it,’ she said, just as I was about to walk away. I stopped and chatted. Meanwhile, as many as five Tory councils are attempting to block expansion of the new ULEZ scheme (Ultra Low Emission Zone). From the end of August, vehicles anywhere in the capital not complying with emissions standards will be liable to a £12.50 daily charge. People are complaining that it hits local small businesses — and the self-employed — particularly hard. Rightly or wrongly, it was never going to be easy taking a razor-edged rattle out of the hands of a baby. The new Daily Mail columnist called Boris Johnson has been taking a predictable popularity-raising pop at ULEZ in his latest weekly exposition.

Moving along now in our not so merry dance of London today, it turns out that over 70% of major central London properties sold this year were bought entirely with cash — suitcases of the stuff at times, one can’t help but imagine — suggesting rich overseas buyers continue to snap up still fleshy London real estate like hand-bagging alligators. If you fancy a mere 45-room property on Rutland Gate, for example, it can be yours for as little as £200m ($257m). It doesn’t matter how many suitcases, or what denominations, presumably. That said, UK house prices fell last month faster than at any time in 12 years, though London tenants are not seeing any fall in rents. In fact, the number of properties in the capital available to rent has dropped by a whopping 41 per cent since the pandemic. It doesn’t take much to work out why homelessness is such a nightmare for the city right now. Added to which everyone seems to be pulling up drawbridges in that Englishman’s-home-is-his-castle sort of way. Tenants claiming they have simply had enough were protesting outside a busy landlord convention last week while demanding a rent freeze. One report said some of the landlords inside were proudly stating they had waiting lists of more than 200 Londoners for each available space, allowing them to pass on to renters their interest rate increases. Hands were rubbed, reportedly. Another story suggested rent in the capital was now so vertigo-inducing that a woman on an average salary needed to double her wages just to afford it. The system is so clearly broken. The joy for so many Londoners has been sucked out of them. You would be surprised how few talk about it, though. The renowned upper lip remains stiff. Protest as a result remains relatively stunted. Mortgages are the opium of the people.

Also feeding this tedious narrative of a cracked system and dysfunctional correction mechanisms are the yet more frustrations leading directly to the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) declaring six whole days of strikes on the London Tube system from July 23. This is as part of a dispute that has been ongoing for some time now. It is over pensions, work conditions and job cuts, a triumvirate of very real sighs and positions. For what it may be worth, I usually trance out travelling on the Tube these days. I probably take the service too much for granted. The carriage rattles away and my thoughts are invariably elsewhere. The reason for these fresh strikes is serious, though. Pretty soon for example a loss of 600 jobs could affect passenger safety. Sympathies in London are still with the RMT. But it hardly lifts the spirit as you travel. (That last line was written on the Tube.)

One person last week wearing a neat white t-shirt and baseball cap, who presumably simply couldn’t stand it anymore, used handcuffs to lock themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace. This was while threatening to hurt themselves. The police, to be fair, were gentle with the person, a man. It is a sad fact that as many as one in five people in their late teens to mid-20s here in the UK are reporting severe psychological distress right now. A growing mental health crisis is not just on the cards, it is already here. Of course, the cost-of-living crisis and climate change are contributing heavily. Writing from London, one wants to celebrate life, identify a realistic and honest glow. This is proving very hard.

One terrible event that took place in Islington a week or so ago led to the deaths of a 15 year-old boy and 23 year-old man — killed while in the middle of making a music video. It should have been a creative high. The video involved as many as 40 people posing with luxury cars. (Maybe not so cool.) A suspect has since been charged with two counts of murder. It was said a fight broke out. In zanier news, a Swedish woman in London has dropped around £100,000 on plastic surgery to become a real-life human Barbie doll. ‘I’ve erased who I used to be in order to become a plastic bimbo,’ she has tweeted. I have seen the results. They make the flesh creep, if I can put it so. People have always wanted to look certain ways, to be fair. It is an essential freedom. Donned in often tight wedding regalia, the great and the good of London for instance were shipped off at the weekend to former chancellor George Osborne’s marriage to former adviser Thea Rogers. This was in balmy Somerset no doubt surrounded by gleaming orchards. Osborne had just had to call in the police after a poison letter was circulated among the aforementioned guests, apparently as part of some long-running campaign. People could not help but be curious about its contents. They were pretty bad, from all accounts. It was even said Osborne knew exactly who was doing this.

George Osborne will always be remembered for his more than harsh austerity programme, the effects of which included a great slashing of welfare spending, the stopping of most school building, a very tight squeeze on local government spending, a hike in VAT, police cuts, court cuts, prison cuts. I’ll always remember the 20% cut in arts and culture spending. It was like the official beginning of the dumbing down of Britain. Ever since, one could argue, the country has been sliding into a kind of group depression, with one side forever pitted against the other, and with people growing dissatisfied — but mute — by the second. I probably don’t know enough about these things but it might be a good time for politicians to concentrate on bringing people together. Goodness knows how they would do that. It would take a saint for something like that.

St Paul by the way had a lot of critics. Former President Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a fan. In fact, he didn’t like him at all. Tolstoy couldn’t stand him. In this light, maybe St Paul and his cathedral are more interesting than I give credit. A Pauline conversion? (I’ve always liked that phrase: it makes me think of the Large Hadron Collider.) Okay, maybe not that. But I wonder if the weird and wonderful Wandsmen and now Wandswomen have a view.

Peter Bach lives in London.