Letter from London: Knees and Shove

County Hall and the London Eye. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Returning to London last week quickly reminded me of just how close to the action we all are still here. I don’t just mean the still reverberating uproar over former prime minister Liz Truss’s resignation honours list, in which for example prince of darkness and former chief executive of the Vote Leave Brexit campaign Matthew Elliott was gifted a seat in the House of Lords. I am afraid I don’t just mean the all-important sit-in on Westminster Bridge at the weekend chanting for a ceasefire in Gaza.

What I also mean is action like those wicked winds cracking open one of the pods on the nearby 1,700-ton London Eye opposite the Houses of Lords and Commons. While hoisted 400 feet in the air at the time, a visiting family from Dorset were left terrified — shame they never got a chance to meditate upon the view.

Not that they would have seen all the way for instance to Moscow in order to check out the rumour that Putin is secretly reaching out for a ceasefire. (Hasn’t he been doing this for a while now?) At a time not only good for him territorially but also while Ukraine is about to vote on drafting in an extra half a million recruits, his chances of a ceasefire must be middling to low. Dependent on North Korea for missiles — just as Ukraine has been dependent on $67 billion in US military aid — Putin must also know Congress will not be deadlocked forever.

What the Dorset family nonetheless could have seen from the London Eye was Liz Truss’s Matthew Elliot lording it over his new ermine-collared red robes on the Palace of Westminster terrace, while the country he so successfully helped propel out of Europe continued its gurgling sounds in the Thames rather like a scuppered Yellow Submarine. Thinking about all this, I was remembering the panoramic view from the London Eye with my own family. This was back when the city still enjoyed great influence over the other European capitals. Before we blew the bloody doors off, to paraphrase Londoner Michael Caine’s character Charlie Croker in ‘The Italian Job’. Before we treated ourselves to the coldest of winds just like the busted pod must have done to that poor family.

Though retired now, Caine has acted in over 130 films. Can you imagine such a thing? I saw him in the flesh once — further west along the river, down Chelsea way, mournfully carrying a polythene shopping bag, while pausing to chat to a couple of locals he knew. He was talking about the Grim Reaper. I kid you not. ‘Maybe it’s time we all stop trying to outsmart the truth and let it have its day,’ he once said.

No, it really was mayhem being back in London. Last week my daughter and son were in the kitchen taking a break from doing some music again when suddenly an electric car outside the window burst into flames. The fire brigade was called. They quickly arrived and put the fire out, though it did attempt to start up again at one point. Theirs was a real job, we all agreed admiringly. We could also see from our vantage point a man and two women watching from the sidelines. It was their car, we realised, their electric car, no less. The two women wore elegant hijabs and behaved as many do when in an unfamiliar part of London — with a mixture of wariness and curiosity. I went out and offered them tea but they politely declined, saying they were waiting for family. I told them all which bell to ring in the event they did find they needed something.

I don’t know much about cars. I know even less about electric ones. The following morning I saw there were lumps of melted car bumper on the road outside, though the car had disappeared, making it like the scene of some spontaneous combustion — the only thing missing being lingering smoke. At least nobody was hurt, I was thinking again, as the artist and I went on our way down to the river. We hadn’t been there in a long while. We stopped at one point at a well-known Danish cafe for two coffees and sat on two stools overlooking the main road. This was when we noticed how suddenly blustery everything was. We stared out some more at the fish and chip shop and the former second-hand clothes store which used to be run by two famous local swingers, peering up at the various rooftops in between sips of reassuringly warm coffee. I wanted to see if any loose pieces of scaffolding were about to come down.

I was not being alarmist, it turned out. The following day we saw a news photograph online of that very same road taken only a few hours after we left. It was of a large wall of scaffolding spread out across the road. ‘Tell your secret to the wind but don’t blame it for telling the trees,’ as Khaled Hosseini once said. Further upstream, a famous Thames boat was sinking in the storm, just like my imaginary Yellow Submarine. I also had it on good authority that Liz Truss — whose calamitous mini-budget, let’s to forget, cost this nation a staggering $38 billion — was spotted that very same day in another local cafe having her American Express card declined. (Her daughter paid for the coffees in the end.)

London is flooded with mixed feelings. There is one group of Brits on social media right now doubtlessly unperturbed by the cost of living. Studiously right-on, they feign poverty like royalty might Cockney accents. When posting, they often include what they consider authentic food — spleens, kidneys, tails — or distressed furniture. They have little idea of their own privilege. The rambling farmhouse or revamped country pile, invariably left by a doting aunt or had-it-easy father, are presented to the world like trophies for something they actually did themselves. This isn’t the same type of thinking that said homelessness was a lifestyle choice, but it is right up there. The street style of these people is a straight copy of an apartment or delicatessen from student days. The spectacles are inevitably designerish but everything else is passed through a kind of street-cred detector, like fashionistas cleaning out their drawers before the fashion police come along. None of this would matter one jot were it not for the fact they are snatching limelight from those who need it most.

They even have their own movie. It is called ‘Saltburn’. If you peer down the glen of social media, you will see people today reenacting scenes from it by miming pieces of dialogue, to be fair some of it clever. These are largely self-congratulatory items disguised as creativity. They remind one of that time when ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was a popular TV series and lots of London’s privileged would gather in clubs like the Gossips, half-pretending to be Brideshead characters while evidently unaware that Evelyn Waugh’s original novel was meant as an obituary to the ruling class.

But I can still feel the capital rising from its bed like a sleeping giant ready to tackle the New Year. Strikes, like house squatting, used to be a thing of the past, but both of these things are back with a vengeance now. Still not much sign of people turning on, tuning in, and dropping out again, though. It’s still more ‘knees and shove’ than ‘peace and love’.

Peter Bach lives in London.