Photograph by Kevin McDonagh
From London Review of Books:
London rebrands as ‘Smart City’ (working in partnership with Catapult, the universities and Tech City to harness the power of the internet of things and the Cloud). So how dumb does that make me feel? How alienated and leaden-footed and stubbornly off-grid?
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPAS REVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
The Overground station at Shoreditch and the spill-area around the mainline station at Liverpool Street are just two of the places in London where packages of free food and drink are regularly handed out – sachets of iced tea, experimental energy bars, sugar boosts in silver cans – but the samples are offered only to bankers and gamers and content providers. As you emerge from the station, if you’re part of the wealth-generating machine, someone will give you a complimentary shot of gin, a glossy magazine or a wafer of perfumed soap. It’s like being upgraded to business class. But around the same stations, huddling by cash machines, lurking under railway bridges on cardboard mattresses, patrolling Overground carriages with looped sob stories, are the invisibles and rough sleepers and drug casualties, and nobody is bringing them any food-aid benefits. ‘Have a nice day, have a nice day, have a nice day’ is the endless mantra from the Big Issue salesman, wasting his unintended scorn on the passing mob.
As you move through Spitalfields, the former vegetable market and interzone between the City and Whitechapel where successive waves of immigrants found shelter, you can’t help noticing that this useful buffer has been reduced to a series of propped-up façades. In a glass panel above the cod-Milanese shopping arcade, as you enter the market from Bishopsgate, the tremendous steeple of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church has been reduced to a quotation, desacralised and presented as a heritage pitch. Nothing has been lost, it says. The established buildings around which London evolved are all in place. But the framing somehow reduces the force of the original engagement. Leon Kossoff, growing up on these streets, came back time and again, crouching beneath the mass of that vertical thrust, sketching furiously, to keep it from tumbling down on him and obliterating his presumption.