Contemporary London – how has it gone from the Tottenham riots of 2011 to the smiley, happy place of the Olympics 2012.? What’s really going on? I hoped two sharp observers of that wonderful city, Chris Cleave and John Lanchester, would help me find out in their session London’s Burning at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival.
Both writers certainly delivered. Its clear that London is a novelist’s dream. Poverty and riches exist side by side, history is palpable in the streets and buildings, and every story in the world is there to be told. The Dick Whittington story still exists – John Lanchester spoke of the London dream which is like the great American dream. People come to London believing they will find opportunity and the chance for riches.
He talked about the obliviousness of London. A lot of problems are in plain sight but people and the media choose to ignore this. He spoke of how this creates an undefined space which gives room for the novel. Novelists can ask the hard questions, novels are cheap to write and you can have an edgy book more easily than edgy films and television.
The two novelists experienced London initially as a difficult place. John Lanchester thought of it as grey and provincial after Hong Kong and Chris Cleave’s child’s eye view after 8 years in West Africa was of a cold, hard place where he was punched in the face at school for speaking French and not knowing what football team to support. Chris told a lovely story of his mother finding himself aged 8 and his brother, naked and blue in the snow at the bottom of the garden. Coming from a very hot place both little boys only knew of taking your clothes off as a way to cope with extremes of climate. Both men came to see London as a powerful centre around which things revolve and both see London as a different planet from the rest of Britain, a situation exaggerated by increasing globilisation.
The impact of the financial crisis has seen the “hollowing out” of the middle class and the growing gap between rich and poor. The super rich are discrete but because they don’t care what anything costs this sets new inflationary benchmarks. There is “ethical inflation” as well – a well lived life has less value.
Asked which will leave a legacy – the riots or the Olympics, Chris Cleave spoke of feeling a recalibration of his relationship with his country and some unification between London and the rest of the country.He felt hopeful that most people chose not to join in the rioting and were clearly fed up with it. John Lanchester spoke of the power of London in the financial crisis – the feeling that nothing you can do will change it, a feeling that is scary but reassuring too. He described it as like watching a great river.
All in all a wonderful evening of ideas and humour and sharply tuned intelligence. Chair Kate de Goldi was the blue meanie for bringing it all to an end. There is still a chance to hear both men again at the festival:
- An hour with Chris Cleave, 11am Friday 31 August,
- Whoops!: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay features John Lanchester and Rod Oram talk about the global financial crisis, 5pm, Geo Dome, Friday 31 August