The wicked things London is doing to its denizenry

One of the first things that I felt as a provincial emerging from the quasi-subterranean tube of Kings Cross was near incredulity. How could anyone build a city like this? So durable, so redoubtable, so impassively big. Here was an imperial city after the death of the term. I felt as if my powers of perception were completely overmatched. You become immediately aware of the impulse to step back, to look up in a way that isn’t necessary elsewhere; and such expedients are still in no way equal to the task of seeing, let alone comprehending.

London has an unquestionable thereness to it. It is austere, mighty, aloof. It struck me so forcibly that I couldn’t conceive of it being brought into existence by men like me. The nineteenth century must have done it. It must have been the nineteenth century, the Victorians. Only great forebears could have stood here when there was nothing and conceived this. And now those four, five, six story buildings with their chests puffed out and their stiff upper lips stood in front of me like complacent antecedents, the English national character of the nineteenth century with its self-belief, its practicality, its moral rigidity.

A completely different conception of space and of your relation to the things around you is immediately forced on you. One feels small. There is an impression of being overlooked, of weaving one’s way between man-made mountains; perhaps even a sense of being trapped, threatened. And the imagination almost immediately starts to feel the metaphorical force of these feelings.

I don’t think that I have ever felt smaller or less significant than I did in those first few minutes. A city of unimaginable sprawl, crowding all around me, with so many surging self-contained people made me realise how small a part I play in the wider scheme(a tear-drop in a flood). I realised how self-contained I was; not because I closed myself off, but simply because numbers and space reduced me to the merest mite of existence. I approximated nothing; from the perspective of London I just didn’t exist. No individual did. What an absurd ideology individualism was in such an immeasurably vast place. How palpably ridiculous human rights were. To respect each human being as an end in themselves, as a unique essence, was just to fail to understand the rounding, the simplifications, the rough-and-ready formulae necessitated by such a moral and political economy of scale. London felt like a profoundly alienating city. It felt sublime. I was awed and terrified; frightened into an understanding of the vanity of any morality that deigned to stand against numbers.

It seems to me only too natural that in a city with such a ‘superabundance of human material’ (Bellow) that one would become careless of individuals; all too understandable that rural areas have traditionally been considered morally exemplary whilst big cities have been castigated as concentrations of rampant immorality. When one has a lot of something – like money – it is worth less to one; unless one is of a very strict character, one becomes careless. The same is true with people. Scarcity is valued. We cherish that which is scarce; we seek it, we protect it, we come to know its specificity or – with people – individuality. It becomes familiar; it can become loved – even an extension of ourselves. Surpluses produce the opposite effects; they are almost inevitably corrosive of morals. We give up on seeing individuality; our perceptions are overwhelmed. Only the abstract, the aggregate can gain any real hold on our imagination. People become cheap, suffering remote. And as people become too many for us to even conceive of, we naturally become more real to ourselves. Amidst the shifting sea, the everchanging flux, of the anonymous mass, we are constant. London becomes a human stream that is different every time we step into it – but it is always us doing the stepping; we are the one solid and durable entity. Surely our claims deserve priority. Beyond that too readily available, too easily produced egotism – all that there is is utilitarianism. Numbers, aggregates, mechanical thinking: a necessary simplification if bewilderment and stupefaction are to be avoided.

The transformation of the moral economy that I felt on walking the streets of London was bigger than that. I didn’t just feel small, a tinier fragment of the social world than I had ever felt before – I felt invisible, too. In a city of so many people, I felt unwatched, an anonymous individual ignored and outside responsibility. If one can aptly beg the question about the sound made by a tree falling in the forest that no one hears, one can ask too about the moral ramifications of an act that no one notices. To be unseen, to know that one’s actions are not inscribed on any other consciousness, is to be lifted out of a moral sphere. Like someone with autism who cannot make the distinction between the world and their own ego, one ceases to be accountable to other people: the moral world becomes coterminous with our own consciousness; right degenerates into self-satisfaction. Depersonalisation and a sort of meglomaniacal hyperpersonalisation go paradoxically together.

I found the bigness of London undermining and jarring, but I think that it is a self-undermining bigness as well. In travelling around London one almost feels that its concrete, particular existence – in a stunning, but typical, act of metaphysical hubris – precedes the existence of its form. The Platonic idea of London did not have time to fully elaborate itself before London came screaming inchoate into the world. And so the real, tangible London is bigger than the idea of London. There just isn’t enough content to fill London out. And so it self-replicates, plagiarises itself like a television show reusing the same sets or a computer game where the backgrounds and the nameless characters are used for every level. A template has had to be used to make good the deficiency of ideas for how London can be. Like a bacterium replicating asexually, one sees the same formation repeated ad infinitum. (Bacterium, not snow-flake)

Like some sort of nightmare ramble through an absurdist cityscape one finds oneself constantly recurring on the same places. One is almost frightened that like a band of campers seeking a way off the mountain one will stumble back upon the remnants of last night’s camp and discover that one has been walking in a circle – but one never does. One is not being turned helplessly on a wheel; one is progressing, independent of one’s own volition, along a conveyor belt. There is no escape from Pret A Manger; one cannot help but find Caffe Nero numberless times, a caffeinated blue-black Waldo for the wired metropolite. Is that another All Bar One? It is. Like an ironic count that never progresses beyond on one.

London is mass-produced. I suppose that there is no other option with something that serves so many millions. Individuality is an impossible luxury. Instead Londoners console themselves with luxury – mass-produced. Sandwiches, clothes, leisure of any and every kind feels like it’s tied up with the global economy, made from a template conceived by a management consultant caballing with a public relations man and an advertising executive, funded by an investment banker. Everything feels configured, tailored to please the aggregate – all the while telling them that it is made specifically for them, fawning before their consciences, kowtowing to their egos. One is torn between feeling it a nightmare of late capitalism and a remarkable cornucopia of luxury. I think that we tend to feel both concurrently.

I think that London is just too big for my ego, too big to be compatible with the way in which I want to relate to the world. I want to feel as if I have experienced everything that there is to experience; I have a need to feel that my personal history and my consciousness are capable of encompassing all stimuli, every fragment of the whole. Without that sense that I am equal to experiencing my world, that it can be fitted whole within the bounds of my consciousness, I don’t think I could feel that I was a part of the world or that the world was a part of me. If the environment in which we live is too diverse and varied – just too damn big – then there can be no hope of fully comprehending the world; it will always remain foreign to us, familiarity proving forever elusive. Our progress through the world will cease to be a striving for totality, mastery, harmony – completeness; it will instead become a contingent journey through something fundamentally unassimilable, doggedly resistant to all categorization. Life then comes to take on the character of the picaresque, nothing more than a succession of events connected only by their protagonist: truly just one damn thing after another. Meaning gives way to the history of proverb.

I realise, though, that my objections are ideological: they are the objections of a conservative or, and it is perhaps just to say as much again, a provincial. I want the known, the familiar; that which has come to belong to me; a place for which I feel an affinity, an identity; I want a rootedness – for geography to imply (non-proverbial) history; for geography to lend itself to meaning. It frightens me, though, to think that I do not choose to want these things; I just feel uncomfortable without them. To be deprived of them is to feel at variance with my environment. Foreignness is visceral; there is little sense in talking about choosing to feel at home somewhere.

If I did live in London, though, if I were to find myself a ferrous slave to the metropolitan magnet, I cannot but believe that I would become a liberal. In a city like that liberalism is an ideology of survival, a way of making sense of the world. It has unarguable personal utility. In a massive, populous city of luxury, a city of anonymity and immigrants, liberalism would make me much better adapted. Confronted by an unknowable variety of peoples, practices and cultures, I would approve of diversity, forcefully advocate tolerance and follow my own conception of the good life in whatever private sphere of freedom emerged out of the general competition for liberty. The provinces for me would seem small, stagnant, homogenous, perversely resistant to change. Their beliefs that things should be a certain way, that established modes of thinking and speaking and doing should be privileged over others would strike me as a sort of antediluvian survival from people with an all-too narrow and impoverished view of the world and its potentialities. That’s how I would think; that’s what the metropolitan life would do to me.

But what a terrifying idea; what a disempowering sketch. To think that our ideologies, the very beliefs on which we sustain are lives are nothing but the shadows cast by the cities in which we live; that conservatism is just provincialism when it’s thinking; and liberalism just metropolitanism when it turns its attention to the theoretical – what unhappy environmental determinism! I truly hope that I’m wrong – and clearly in one measure I am. One finds liberals in the provinces, in rural areas even; and one finds conservatives in the metropolis. But the tendencies are there and the determining influences powerful. Perhaps it would be more apt to say simply that the provinces are the natural home of conservatism and the metropolis the natural home of liberalism; or maybe such a formulation is too weak. However I choose to phrase it, I wish to make the point that having lived all my life in the provinces, visiting London made me think about the way in which our views shape themselves to the needs of our environment. It made me realise that we force ideas into service to meet the exigencies of our everyday existence; frequently it is more important that an idea is serviceable than that it is true. And that realisation makes me reflect sadly on the contingency of my own ideas and inclinations. Standing in London I felt the hollow pretence of the ideas that I use to interpret the world; I felt a sham. It was the man that I might have been, sitting next to me on the bus formidable in his liberalism, the Londoner, who forced me to see it. I resent him mightily for it.

4 Responses to “The wicked things London is doing to its denizenry”

  1. I know, I know. « A blog from the back room. Says:

    […] His current post, an extended musing on the impact of London on the new arrival, is excellent. I’m still very much not-a-londoner despite having lived here for five years now. Like Adam, I still sometimes get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the place. […]

  2. councilhousetory Says:

    Maybe that’s why I’m liberal? Although I can tell you that there are plenty of conservatives (not tories) round here.

  3. Dom Says:

    You mean “…to its denizenry”.

  4. adammcnestrie Says:

    Thanks for the heads-up, Dom.

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