A Wounded Metropolis London in the Age of Terror and Brexit

London is the epicenter of globalization, a glut of money and creativity -- and the antithesis of Brexit parochialism. It is also the best city in the world.

Big Ben from Westminster Bridge

Big Ben from Westminster Bridge


The crap weather, the traffic, the noise, the obscene amounts of money, the horrific rents, the Central Line during rush hour, the greed, the indifference, the Russians in Mayfair, the French in Notting Hill, and the price of a pint has long since risen above six euros: There are, of course, a number of reasons to hate London.

But then the sun peaks through the clouds for a second, the woman sitting across from you in the subway smiles and you are given a ticket for a theater premier -- and all the aggravations are forgotten. In such moments, it becomes clear: There is no better place in the world than this wondrous city. Nowhere is more exciting or more polite, nowhere else gives you more, despite terror, despite Brexit and despite the constant chaos.

London is justifiably proud of its coolness, which is regularly put to the test, most recently on Wednesday. An attacker sped into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and tried to force his way into parliament. Along with the shock and the grief, however, the metropolis exhibited the stubborn equanimity that can only be developed in a city that has become used to crises, attacks and turmoil over the course of decades.

London is good at absorbing shocks. The question is whether it will remain so. Because here, in the heart of the globalized West, the withdrawal from the European Union will be orchestrated and carried out in the coming months and years, a lunatic exercise in isolation. The city is doing what it can to courageously resist English parochialism, but ultimately, a country will emerge that is less open and less interconnected with the world around it -- and that stands in direct contradiction to London's disposition.

Around a dozen English-language newspapers are published here every day, trade routes and capital flows converge in the city, it is home to exiles and oligarchs, oil sheikhs and refugees, business leaders and the carefree. London breathes the world, London is the world. That which is said, written, developed and designed here boggles the mind of anyone attempting to grasp the city.

A Laboratory for the Age of Migration

London is the epicenter of globalization, larger, hungrier and more powerful than any other Western European city. No place in the Western hemisphere has profited to a greater degree from immigration, free markets and the unhindered flow of capital, from openness, internationalism and ideas from elsewhere. Eight-and-a-half million people from all across the world live here together more-or-less peacefully and contentedly, and in general, they profit from it. London is a laboratory for the age of migration, a foreign object hovering over England.

That, though, is why separating from the European Union will be so appalling for this city. Next Wednesday, the government intends to start the Brexit process by triggering Article 50. And Prime Minister Theresa May has left no doubt that she is unconcerned about suffocating the capital. The majority of voters in London, 60 percent, voted against Brexit. For them, it is unimaginable to cut off connections with the Continent in the vague hope that, in 10 years perhaps, a trade deal with South Korea might prove beneficial. The result has been a creeping fear in London of becoming smaller, less cosmopolitan and less important -- of becoming poor like Berlin, rigid like Paris or inconsequential like Rome. The fear of no longer being a metropolis, of being just another city in England.

Kings lie buried here, rebels and capitalists, and the city's sense of humor is on full display at the grave of Karl Marx in Islington, where visitors must pay a four-pound entrance fee. The city does nothing in moderation, which makes it so seductive. It has no tolerance for indolence, which makes it so enticing. It is not the city to move to in the search for quietude. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," wrote the author Samuel Johnson in 1777.

To become a true Londoner, all it takes is a quintessential tipsy afternoon in a pub with a couple of friends and a television broadcasting the Chelsea-Arsenal match. Then you know all you need to know about the city, life and all the rest. That, at least, is how it was for a long time.

Beset with Anxiety

These days, Brexit even creeps into bar chatter. The tone is one of lament and it is impossible to blame capital-dwellers for that either. The pound has become weaker since the referendum and coffee, mobile phones and Ibiza vacations have all become more expensive. European nurses are quitting and entire companies are planning on leaving the country.

London small talk has become beset with anxiety, no matter who you speak with: architects, bankers, writers and normal citizens. There are many pessimists who see the British capital stuck in a downward spiral. But there are still those who remain confident, people who say that London has always been flexible and that stagnancy is not an option for the city. Stagnancy means boredom and boredom would mean the city's demise.

In his grand biography of the city, historian Peter Ackroyd describes London as a living being, half stone and half flesh. "It is curious … that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion," he writes. The city will adapt, even to a hard, messy Brexit if it must.

The city is chaotic, and it helps to look at it from a fresh perspective -- through the eyes of a recently arrived newcomer. Alessandra Muin was 22 when she came, a lively young woman from a northern Italian backwater. She wanted to learn English and find adventure, she wanted to leave provinciality behind and become a part of the world. She initially intended to stay for just a few months but had no concrete plan.

She flew in just before Christmas. "Two weeks later, I had a job," she says, folding sweaters and shirts at the Oxford Circus Benetton. It wasn't the most fulfilling job in the world, but it was a start. She wandered agape through the city streets and partied with new friends and acquaintances in the evenings. And she saw a million opportunities. "I fell in love with this city," she says.

'A Frame of Mind'

That was 14 years ago and London hasn't let her go since. Today, she is no longer folding shirts, rather she cooks tasty treats from back home and sells them to foodies. Muin is one of tens of thousands of people who wash up here every year and somehow never leave. Because of the opportunities that present themselves, because of the freedom, because of the people, who are all looking for something: money, happiness, excitement -- for life and meaning.

Those who move to London want to prove to themselves that they can survive here. Every newcomer immediately senses that this maze of streets and empire monuments, palaces and council housing, is more than just bricks and cement. "London is a state of mind," says Mayor Sadiq Khan, and he sounds like he means it. The referendum is like a thorn in the city's side and Khan knows that he needs to find a way to meliorate the anger of its residents. But how?

A career like Khan's would be unthinkable elsewhere and his life essentially tells the story of this city as a magnet to those looking for a chance. Nowhere else would such a climb raise fewer eyebrows. The son of a Pakistani bus driver becoming a lawyer and then mayor, the first Muslim leader of a European metropolis: What's the big deal?

"For over a thousand years, this city has been open to trade, people and ideas," Khan says. "We must not allow that to change."

Like the majority of his constituents, Khan voted against Brexit on June 23, 2016, and, like all politicians who did the same, he finds himself in a dilemma. He is among the referendum's losers, but he must do all he can to protect citizens, companies and banks from the negative consequences of leaving the EU. He wants to link London closely with Europe, using special work visas if it comes to that. He can't stop Brexit, but he can slow it down. And it's not just about London. "When London flourishes, the country flourishes," Khan says. "If London is doing poorly, the country suffers."


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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danielwittdaniel 03/24/2017
1. Location Karl Marx's grave
Last time I visited it with my uncle it was in Highgate Cemetery. The article suggested it was in Islington which is somewhere else on my map. Personally I would have thought it was a perfectly natural destination for Germans to visit first. Like I returned the favour with my uncle with a postcard from Munich. The banana skin I think is a perfectly natural place to start in politics. The other fork of liberalism, is in problems trying to condemn the terrorist act on Westminster bridge by condemning ideology. If a policeman asks for your personal phone number only the terrorist might give it to them others are more flexible and lie. America is in this dilemma that it wants to be the leader in this left of centre ideology and yet chucking a banana skin down is good advise.
Parkmeister 03/24/2017
2. Disgusting. Using terroism as a pretext to ramble on about Brexit
Guess what? I'm a Londoner and I voted for Brexit. We voted for Brexit in huge numbers even in London and those of us that did believe we did the right thing - if only to secure our democratic right to self-determination rather than be ruled by foreign civil servants. The UK has been one of the biggest milch cows in the EU and we'll do just fine outside it. The whole modus operandi of the EU is to take vast amounts of money off the large countries of Northern Europe and shovel it to Southern and Eastern Europe to buy support their for the EU project. The flaw's not hard to spot and we've seen it. Goodbye.
chris@drakemarine.co.uk 03/24/2017
3. Brexit and the future of the UK
"ultimately, a country will emerge that is less open and less interconnected with the world around it" This reporter demonstrates a total misunderstanding of the objectives of Brexit and has failed to comprehend the character of the British. Either that or he is deliberately misrepresenting us. Britain has been the leading trading nation in the world for centuries - in most cases, for several hundred years before most other members of the EU were even an identifiable entity ! Brexit will make us precisely the opposite of what Scheuermann claims will be our fate. We intend to open up to the world and return to being the best connected nation on Earth. Rather than be a member of a restrictive and protectionist club representing a declining 7% of world trade, we are already starting to forge trade agreements with the 93% of the world that isn't in the EU and, in particular, those parts of the World that are growing rather than the EU which is in decline. We have from Brexit day + 1 made it absolutely clear that we wish to continue free trade with our neighbours and friends within the 27. In return we have been threatened and told we will have to wait up to a decade for a free trade agreement when our economy is already in perfect convergence with those of the EU members. How ridiculous an act of self harm is that when we have a massive trade deficit with the 27 ? If this isn't a misguided act or protectionism I'm not sure what is. We are not even wasting time attempting to negotiate continuing full membership of the so-called single market : After all, if Merkel and Junckers could send their best ally, David Cameron, home humiliated and empty handed when he attempted to negotiate some pretty minor changes to FOM what would be the point ? It is Merkel and Juncker, more even than Nigel Farage, who are ultimately responsible for Brexit. Ironically many other member countries would now love to implement exactly the kind of changes Merkel rejected out of hand when Cameron asked. All because of Merkel's very own disastrous migrant crisis. Whatever the outcome of our Article 50 negotiations we will survive and I personally doubt that there will be an EU of 27 countries in existence by the time we actually leave - if it actually takes all of the two year A50 period. One thing is for sure : if Juncker, Merkel and Co demand that Mrs May agrees to pay a €60bn exit fee before even starting negotiations after next week's Article 50 declaration, it will be a massive miscalculation : The negotiations will be the shortest in history. They need to understand that no British Prime Minister could survive even a day in office after agreeing any kind of large exit fee. Instead, we will simply leave straight away and immediately cease making our £10bn pa in net contributions. History will see our membership of the EU as a 50 year blip in our very long history - a mistake that it took the courage and confidence of the British people rather than our politicians to put right.
ganpati23 03/24/2017
4. Londoners and the attacks.
The day after the attack, I was at a free comedy night in Dalston, 1km from my home. 2 different comedians had added some jokes about the attacks, which got uproarious laughter from most of us there. Being in Hackney, there were quite a few non-Brits in the audience - the organiser is an Italian bloke - and when the 2nd comic to make jokes about the attacks noticed one or two of the foreigners seemed a little unsure of whether it was ok to laugh, he said "What? Of course we're gonna make a joke about it. This is a city that spent most of the blitz laughing about how many testicles Adolf Hitler had." That went down well. The usual London response to most things - just take the piss. And let's be honest. Compared to much of mainland Europe, we know full well how lucky we've been to have so few attacks here. The previous one was the murder of the soldier, Lee Rigby, almost four years ago. Compared to France, Germany and Belgium we've got off very lightly. But on the article's final point. No, we don't need a dose of normalcy whatsoever. Never have done, never will do. It's great going to this free comedy club below a bar and hearing comedians from all over Europe mocking us from their own national perspectives. We like being a city where less than half of us are GB-born whites, where our friends come from all over Europe and the globe. I was saying earlier today to a Sikh friend originally from Huddersfield in the north of England, who consequently has a northern accent, that he now lives in a city who couldn't give a toss about his skin colour or religion but would always think he spoke funny and he couldn't agree more. I've spent most of the last 25 years travelling and have lived in four continents, but have never found a city like this one. Brexit is going to be an unmitigated disaster and as such, we should declare independence from the UK and remain in the EU. Sod the provincial, northern racists. They don't want us and we don't need them. We should become a city-state like Singapore or like Venice et al in the middle-ages. Singapore was founded as a free trade city by the London-based East India Company and that hasn't done too badly. So no, we don't need to be more normal. We need to further accentuate the differences. Because we are on the right side of history. As we have been from at least the Glorious Revolution in 1688. Since then, where we have led, others have followed. And it takes a damn sight more than a retard with a hire car and a knife to stop us.
McSponge 03/25/2017
5. Not very good.
This article is narrow is based on the typically myopic view that the EU is God's answer to the World's problems and anybody who disagrees is wrong. Why are so many European immigrants based in London? Because the EU is a sclerotic, bureaucratic, corrupt, more or les bankrupt organisation lacking in the basics of democratic institutions.! That's why so many Europeans come here. Many of the characteistics of "Londoners" are to be found all over the UK, but then the author has probably never been outside London. And the strong implication in the article, that Brexit is a way of stopping immigration is just plain wrong too. People who voted "Out" are concerned to control immigration, not stop it. Personally, I cannot wait for the execcies of Article 50; the sooner we are out of the EU, the better. Good luck to all who remain. I personally wish you well and I hope we can remain friends, but if not, so be it!
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