Dead Men Left

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

"The Great Wen", and John Prescott

Iain Sinclair, on his (now-released) book, Edge of Orison:

It kind of continues or completes the trilogy of Lights Out and London Orbital because the actual journey was exactly the same distance as the journey around the M25, but out into the country. It traces something that I've passed through in London Orbital which is Epping Forest and the asylum were the poet John Clare was kept; he did this phenomenal three and a half day march back to his village north of Peterborough and I always wanted to repeat that journey.

So the book starts with a reprisal of his journey, walking at exactly the same dates in July when it's sweltering hot and it was weirder than the M25 because I found that the whole of middle England was just deserted. There's nothing there once you're off the motorway. In the villages the pubs are shut, there were no obvious farmers, abandoned airfields, huge industrial fields of corn and a very very weird landscape. Whereas walking around the edge of London there were always people you'd bump into and stories to hear. This was like emptiness. Emptiness all the way.

It's a version of what's coming up which is John Prescott's motorway growth cities - Thames Gateway and another one that's going to go up Stanstead, Cambridge, Peterborough - that's the future. So without really intending it this third book has become the conclusion to this movement out of London.

(via) This little paen to a disappearing London put me in mind of something else I'd seen only recently, Patrick Keiller's London, a quite brilliant collage of documentary and narrative fiction, filmed in 1992. (Keiller surpassed himself in the follow-up, Robinson in Space, here rightly described as "the best British film of the nineties".)

Keiller's thesis, as related by the arch narration of "Robinson", was that London was slowly dying: neglected by a corrupt establishment of Tories and financiers, deprived even of its own government, the entire city was steadily sinking into more or less inglorious ruin. London's own citizens were abandoning it in droves, as the population figures attest.

A decade later, and quite a different film could be made: London's newly-constitued government now boasting - pace Sinclair - that:

London is growing - and at an unprecedented rate - that's the message from a new Mayoral report launched today...

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London said: 'These figures show that London's growth is by far the biggest regional issue in the UK. Population and employment growth on this scale demonstrates London's success and is good news for London's economic and social vitality, and for the wider UK economy.'

With the minimal spin, London can be presented as a New Labour success story. A succesful new local administration, a population boom, a massive inflow of investment, the Olympics: a veritable triumph for Blairite governance, even down to Red Ken's rehabilitation.

New Labour is more than happy to talk up London. It is less keen that we examine the rest of the country: as the GLA press release quoted earlier notes, whilst London's population has been expanding at an unprecedented rate, those of "Merseyside, the West Midlands, Tyne and Wear, Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire all fell." The regional differences in real income, productivity and employment growth remain very large by international standards (PDF). All this, whilst London and the south-east surge onwards - flattered, now, by an extraordinary southern bias from the Cabinet's token Northerner.

John Prescott can, of course, be blamed for many things. Curiously - or not - media criticism tends to focus on the superficialities of his alleged stupidity, his maulings of the English language, his handy way with his fists. The significant criticisms that should be made of the debacle that is New Labour's regional policy have been far too muted: Prescott has presided over an utter farce. The regional assemblies died a quiet death, bereft of meaningful political support or purpose; the North-South is reasserting itself with a venegeance; and the best response of New Labour can make to all this is to hawk a regeneration scheme on the back of the biggest circus in the world - to be located, naturally enough, in London.

This regional failure is starting to bite. Larry Elliot, in passing, noted how these concerns came through in the Dunfermline by-election; Scottish politics is a different creature, of course, but there is no reason to think the same issues do not apply in the deprived and almost-forgotten regions of England.