Disappearing London by writers and campaigners
Why London Needs to Disappear
by JG BallardI’m not really a fan of London, though I’ve lived in or near it for the last 50 years. It’s never really been a twentieth-century city in the proper sense of the term. It sort of lurched from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century while you looked round for your gin and tonic. When I came here in 1946, London was a nineteenth-century city and remained so right through the ’50s: quite literally, as most of the buildings you saw had been put up from the 1850s onwards. And there was a habit of mind that went with that. A lot of its problems lie there – like the awful transport system. I’m strongly opposed to parking meters, cyclists, double yellow lines. I’m not too keen on buses. I’m all for the private car. The congestion charge is a nineteenth-century habit of mind. I hate it. It’s a Stalinist idea, an attempt to preserve London as a city of peaceful local villages loosely strung together by carriageways down which Hansom cabs can clip-clop.
Nostalgia is the great besetting sin of the English and I think our mayor – or should I say, your mayor, ha ha – Ken Livingstone wants London to look like Moscow in the 1950s, with special lanes for senior members of the government. That’s almost come to pass. Driving into London along the M4, there’s a designated lane for politicians – and taxis, which are ludicrously overexpensive. Livingstone hates the middle classes, you see. He’s got this old-fashioned notion that if you own a car, you’re middle-class. That may have been true 50 years ago, but it’s not true now. What we need is not fewer cars but more roads. And the only place to build more roads is up in the air.
Take Los Angeles, which is a low-rise city for the most part, of about the same size in area and population as London. They built the freeway system! If you tried to drive around LA using ordinary streets it would take you all day, but that’s what we’re lumbered with in London. You need a huge network of overhead freeways of which we have one or two faint traces like Westway. Can you imagine getting from Marylebone to Notting Hill on surface roads? Wending your way through all those weird areas north of Notting Hill? Maida Vale! Somebody once said, ‘Death is like Maida Vale’. Instead we have Westway up in the air, which brings you swirling down into Shepherd’s Bush in no time at all. Likewise the M4 out to the airport. It flies over Kew and all those other places that no one in their right mind would want to visit.
Would London be better razed to the ground and rebuilt from scratch? Yes, I would love that. I want it all to look like the Heathrow Hilton. Most of London’s architecture is still speculative building from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – cheapskate stuff put up for the armies of bank clerks who administered the Empire. These houses for clerks are now selling for a million pounds each! It’s ridiculous.
The real England is not the England of inner London, which most people in the media live in – in bloody Muswell Hill, Notting Hill and Clapham; what I call ‘heritage London’ held together by dinner-party culture. The England that voted for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and is, I fear, going to vote for David Cameron, is out on the M25 in all the satellite suburbs with their science parks and industrial estates and marinas and CCTV cameras.
I like CCTV. It’s a very good thing which, incidentally, most people like – a unifying, socialising phenomenon. Britain isn’t like Spain, where there are town squares for people to show off their finery and chat to neighbours. So what provides togetherness? Traffic jams, airport escalators, CCTV. When you see a CCTV camera pointing at you, you know someone cares.
People think I’m isolated out here in Shepperton, as if I was in some sort of witness protection programme, but actually I spend about half the week in London with my partner. She lives in Shepherd’s Bush, which has real integrity I think. Strange little electricians, Arabs sitting in cybercafés, Arthur Daley types, little brothels run by East European girls… The London I dislike is Notting Hill – completely bijou-ised, full of bankers and TV executives. Kensington High Street is very sinister indeed.
JG Ballard’s new novel ‘Kingdom Come’ is published by Fourth Estate
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