city, London, future, law, inequality, utopia, elite
Sunday, October 15, 2006 09:39 GMT
This was written for a series of short meditations on the future of cities on BBC Radio 3.
My flight to London touched down in the early hours of the morning; and it may be due to the disorientation of the hour that the changes at Heathrow airport made little impression on me when I arrived there a couple of weeks ago. As I got into the taxi, I believe I noticed that the make of car was unfamiliar.
With the low growl of our progress, City towers began to sprout from the horizon. The tallest of all was gold domed, glinting like the Kremlin cathedrals, soaring up from a broad-shouldered skyscraper with Arabesque inlay and arches, and gardens spilling from the stepped terraces of its upper levels. More towers came into view, in pink and turquoise and gold, the ensemble making me think simultaneously of Dubai hotels and fertility drugs. The bewilderment of suddenly-appearing buildings is of course familiar these days: but I had been in London only three months before, and this unfamiliar hypertrophy spoke of another era altogether.
“Can I ask you,?I said to the taxi driver, “what year this is??
?056,?he said. “Same as where you came from, I shouldn’t wonder.?
Our combined efforts were insufficient to find the hotel I had booked, apparently fifty years before, and we abandoned the search. Given the unusual circumstances, I made no further attempt to fulfil my professional obligations, and chose instead to explore, and to speak to people where I could.
The construction of the wall had begun in the early 2020s, following in certain places, by way of a kind of historical romanticism, the route of the medieval fortifications. From the outside, the enclosed towers looked densely packed, but people spoke of parks there, and generous roads. To me, its camera-lined concrete looked menacing, but the wall did not cause much distress for the outsiders I spoke to. There was rather a sense that the retreat of the business elites had opened space for new ideas of happiness to emerge.
While entry into the inner city was strictly controlled, all other borders seemed to have disappeared, and the resulting diversity of peoples was reflected in the enormously varied styles of housing, arranged, often, in townships whose density I decided not to brave. Our word “multiculturalism?is too weak an epithet for the incredible effusion of different conceptions of life I witnessed there, which seemed to be subject to no overriding principle of standardisation, and the prejudices of my own background forced me to wonder how such variety could be sustainable.
In the arc I walked, from Islington to Hackney, there was plentiful agriculture: the grass verges of city streets were used by residents to grow vegetables, and cows were tied to houses. But it was a complex economic system, where people did several kinds of work, and adjacent to cabbage patches were winding warrens of small-scale industrial installations, many of which seemed to me to be of a technological sophistication far ahead of anything I had witnessed.
Intercourse between the walled city and the surrounding areas was of course intense. Presumably the towers inside were linked by some dark series of connections to the heaped-up factories and research centres outside. Thousands of outsiders were licensed to provide services inside: school teachers, secretaries, drivers, domestic servants, drug dealers and the like ?and I witnessed the morning queues outside the checkpoints, whose length had aroused the entrepreneurial instincts of countless refreshment sellers, newspaper hawkers, storytellers and street performers. But it seemed that the various worlds of this city had become somewhat unintelligible to each other. People told me that newspapers from the inside were comically far-fetched in their descriptions of the outside, picturing a horrifying zone of uninterrupted disease and violence. At the same time, my informants were repetitive in their accounts of the homogeneous, joyless inside, and I came to sense that these, too, might be groundless clichés.
A surprising number of shop fronts were given over to law courts. There seemed to be a vast array of legal systems, whose jurisdictions overlapped merrily. People selected for their cases those courts whose ideological basis they preferred, or which they thought might provide them the best outcome. Seeing one of these courts overflowing with people, I tried to hear the proceedings. The debate was of great sophistication, and made reference to poets and philosophical authorities whose names I had never heard. I was left with the impression that the collapse of the state’s cool impersonality had engendered an efflorescence of intellectual ambition. I wish I had been in a position to bring back some of this learning, which seemed to be of such sort to speak with confidence to the bewilderments of our own time.
I had dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant, whose owner worked also as a farmer and scientist. She was kind enough to offer me a bed in her home, and I sat up late discussing with her family the questions that the day had raised in my mind. “Does the chaos not scare you??I asked. “We do not feel we live in chaos,?she replied. “In fact we think back to your times with sadness, when the insiders still had direct control of our lives, and there was no time for culture. Isn’t it true that no one in your time knew how to sing??
My schedule did not allow me to extend my stay beyond the next day, and I flew back without gaining a complete impression of this society. It has been two weeks, now, since my return, but I am still having trouble recovering my sleep pattern.