The fall of towers makes humanity stop, shudder and reflect on its own tortured ugliness. You know the story of Babel. When New York’s Twin Towers fell, the British poet Simon Armitage wrote of “a force still years and miles off, yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course”. When “Smoke’s dark bruise has paled, soothed”, as at last it did at Grenfell Tower this year, we briefly note man’s inhumanity to man and then…move on.
But Grenfell is doubtless a dark and potent symbol of London’s seemingly endless and rampant inequality. Had Charles Dickens been writing now and not in the Victorian era, he would still have been able to compose A Tale of Two Cities. Benjamin Disraeli would still have perceived “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. And both men would still have enjoyed comfortable middle-class lifestyles while London’s homeless thousands struggled through the winter.
Any British government will rightly laud London’s economic successes – don’t believe the Green Party – economic growth is a good thing. But London’s economy still stands on sand. It’s true that Britain’s banks have recently passed a number of key “stress tests” to cope with Brexit. It’s equally true that the survival of London’s banks and the profits of their shareholders mean little for the survival of Londoners, whose wages continue to stagnate while prices rise. We never reformed the banks after the financial crisis. One wonders if we ever will.
And that most visible symbol of the failure of the market – homelessness – is effectively an epidemic in London. At the start of the year, London accounted for 23% of all rough sleeping, with a quarter of those cases to be found in the City of Westminster. One in four under-25s in London have been homeless at some point in the last year. As austerity continues to bite and Brexit hits, we can hardly expect the statistics and the suffering to abate.
Pericles, who was the first mayor, said: “In time, all things great things flow towards the city. And the greatest of those is the people.” Those words, spoken in Athens 2,000 years ago, are as true now as they were then. The greatness of London is its people. Without them, there would be no London. The city would cease to be, but you could be forgiven sometimes for thinking that London itself has forgotten its people.
And, yes, London is a great city. As a councillor in Wembley, and as a man who has travelled to many other capitals, I consider London to be the greatest city in the world. Its history, its monuments, its vibrancy and its spirit all make it a redoubtable fortress of hope. But that hope is tortuous to the millions – yes, millions – of Londoners living in poverty.
There is no London Dream in the way there is a supposed American Dream. There is only a reality that seems to change so very little in its unfairness as the centuries march on. George Orwell once wrote that, regardless of the year, “England will still be England, an everlasting animal … having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.” The Londoners of 2017 must wonder if London is, after all, an animal that devours its young, whatever the season.