Letter from London: Symphony of a Lost and Found City

Paddington Station, London. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

‘Dark Day For Drivers,’ declared Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. This was after last week’s unpopular expansion of London’s ultra-low-emission zone, otherwise known as ULEZ. Otherwise known as unpopular attempt at saving children’s lungs. This is now the largest pollution-charging scheme in the world. ‘What a grotesque fraud the entire ULEZ and EV movement really is,’ wrote someone I know, though others would dispute him. Everything has run amok in the Big Smoke. For those who don’t know London, there is one popular shadowy group right now known as the Blade Runners — one in three Londoners support them — with a ghastly fetish for pseudo-intrepid black garb and sabotaged ULEZ surveillance equipment. I don’t know who they think they are, but whoever it is, they would never get in. This is a group being quietly urged on by a rightwing broadsheet newspaper, who really should know better, while carefully complaining in other articles about lawbreakers. No wonder Labour — despite its over-clenched rhetoric — is more trusted by voters to fight crime.

To any neutrals out there, the right in this country gives every impression of ‘cruising for a bruising’ or ‘heading for a spreading’, as friends of mine would joke queuing for white pudding and chips in Edinburgh. It seems for some of these Disgruntleds, Brexit was not enough for them, only another fight will do. It has become Troublemaker’s Paradise over here, while the left are stuck at the back like disenfranchised schoolteachers. (NB Not all Disgruntleds come from the right but those outside Downing Street last week had xenophobic hatred in their hearts.) It must have been forgotten that ULEZ was a concept first announced by the rightwingishesque foppish love-king Boris Johnson in July 2014 when he was Tory mayor. People were also in denial about the fact this latest expansion — in which the whole of outer London is now charged £12.50 per day for non-compliant vehicles — was a Conservative demand to London mayor Sadiq Khan in 2020 in return for financial support from central government. There is a letter from Grant Shapps, a government minister for Johnson and now the curious new choice as defence secretary by Sunak, to prove it. Now, Khan is accusing the government of ‘weaponising air pollution’. Rosamund Adoo Kissi Debra, whom I have written about before, who has been fighting for a cleaner London since her daughter Ella in 2013 died following an asthma attack aged nine, said of last week’s first day of restrictions it was ‘a good day for everyone’ but that ‘individual things need to be looked at’, by which she meant assisting poorer and more vulnerable motorists affected by these new costs. There is yet more mayhem afoot I fear in the troubled capital. Nor does it end with pollution.

Enter stage right: a group of well dressed Londoners at theatres growing out of control. Last week’s less contentious theatregoers were left bemused by the sight of police officers having to escort two men and two women from the Dominion Theatre in central London for being ‘loud and abusive’ during a performance of ‘Grease The Musical’. (‘You’re the one that I want!’) A video posted on social media saw fellow punters shouting ‘Out! Out! Out!’ as police attempted to deal with these stormy petrels. Jeremy Briar KC was complaining on another social media site about a different night at another theatre altogether: ‘First, a fight breaks out as couple in aisle seats refuse to stand to let people pass them. Later, different fight as people accuse a couple of talking through the play. Do people not know how to behave socially anymore?’ Nor were these the only such moments this year. In March, all hell broke out at ‘Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical’, eventually bringing the performance to a halt. (‘Like a bat out of hell, I’ll be gone, gone, gone.’) However, this smartly dressed but decidedly thuggish behaviour is no match for London’s colourful past. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, not only did London theatre audiences fight in the stalls, some actually engaged in full-on duels during performances. Ah, those were the days.

More seriously, the Metropolitan Police ejecting the aforementioned have a lot on their minds. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley had just said he would no longer tolerate officers taking the knee against racism, or flying LGBTQIA+ rainbow flags, or wearing badges supporting environmentalism. (Non-SEAL Ron DeSantis of Florida springs to this one Londoner’s mind.) The Metropolitan Police were already on high alert after a serious security breach in which personal details were hacked (47,000 personnel were said to be at risk). What happened was very bad news for them but not as bad as Northern Ireland’s recent unintentional disclosures of personal information of up to 10,000 PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officers and staff. As I have said before, I have filmed the PSNI in Northern Ireland up close. I know for a fact how some wish nothing more than to expunge the country, province or region of its violent past. Those solely Protestant days of the RUC are over. Which is why it is being said of this recent disclosure that it is the Catholics in the PSNI — who now make up 31.7% of officers — made to feel most vulnerable from the breach, given dissident republican dislike of Catholic officers joining what in their minds remains an historically Protestant force. But no secrets are safe in the world today. As recently deceased American writer Cormac McCarthy, himself from an Irish Catholic background, once wrote in ‘Blood Meridian’: ‘The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down.’

As many people know, a third massive technical issue also hit UK air traffic control systems last week. When it fails, it soars. To many outsiders looking in, the country must look so broken, though we locals remain in denial of this fact. ‘Books will be written about how in these final years of ‘prosperity’ when there was still time to avert what was coming that Britain did nothing,’ wrote one concerned friend to me last week. Though not reckoned to be a cybersecurity incident, some claim a rogue flight plan was responsible for the closed airspace. Nor was blaming a French airline not being ruled out by Downing Street, which sounded incredibly Old School. More likely, it was ageing computer systems, which of course no one wants to own up to.

Meanwhile, thousands of passengers, including my good New Yorker friend and his young family, struggled much of the week to get back to London. He in the end holed himself and his family up in a hotel in Nice, having surrendered their rented accommodation. News of others kept flooding in. These were people mostly stuck at airports or on runways, admittedly with nothing much to say. At least the sudden absence of planes over London meant fantastic birdlife once again reclaimed the sky. This was in a manner not seen since the pandemic. Geese assumed the proportion of jumbo jets. Wispy vapour trails were consumed totally by blueness. That said, the occasional solitary airline broke through, like an escaped salmon, its passengers presumably staring down at our beautiful but unhappy city, where as it happened my sister-in-law’s boyfriend at the time was being badly attacked at some traffic lights.

Thankfully the boyfriend from all accounts was soon showing impressive mettle, but it had been another reminder of a city on edge. I caught a Tube train to Baker Street from where I walked to a film and TV studio. A place where several years ago I was able to oversee cutting of my footage from four trips to Afghanistan and two to Pakistan, also where editing had next begun on my documentary about an artist whose public works I visited around the world. I have to say, it was great to be there again. I had popped in recently but this time the mission had legs. I had the post-production of a prospective film to cost. The owner is a very warm human being. He was freshly back from a yoga retreat in Italy. It always feels like we know each other well. Where once we would have body-surfed across the upraised hands of London, now we just work, try to build things, create. We discussed the countries where I plan to film and the great crew I want to use. (This time around, I don’t want to do my own filming, or editing: I just want to produce and direct.) We talked about the raw footage, the storage and organisation of said footage, the build to rough cut, notes followed by refining and ‘locking’, Vfx if any, sound effects, design and mix, final approval plus fine tuning, then delivery. Despite everything else, London still for me feels like the capital of the world when it comes to post-production. Someone in a recent forwarded article — in yet another increasingly rightwing magazine based out of London — was decrying the state of the nation, in this particular case by concentrating on two fellow rail passengers in south-east London whom she was accusing rather disparagingly — without even speaking to them — of working in ‘the creative industries’. As I replied to the person who sent it, it may have been worth her while remembering that these so-called creative industries are worth £35 billion to the economy and provide almost 800,000 jobs in the capital.

Finally, I met up again last week with someone I spent much of the pandemic with on zoom calls, initially putting in place with him and some gifted Finns and assorted others a chatbot which we gifted to the nation. While every rascal in the country was cleaning up financially as ‘fast-track’ friends of the government, our early solution was officially taken up by the NHS without us making a bean. Though our endeavours remain unsung, I don’t mind singing them. Even more importantly, though, to see people we care about looking so well — and to hear of another fellow colleague making leaps and bounds in the north — is bloody marvellous.

Peter Bach lives in London.