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

Foto: Alastair Grant/ AP

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."

Turning Money into More Money

The problem is the city's arrogance. Khan knows that open doors are advantageous, at least for his city. London pulls in people, money, jobs, art and ideas. Fully 23 percent of the country's economic output comes from the capital. And London residents are more than happy to remind their provincial brethren of their city's superiority. The food is better, as are the theaters, the museums, the pubs, the discussions, the nightlife and perhaps even the sex. As such, the Brexit referendum was also a form of rural revenge, a "fuck you" from globalization's losers to those who have profited the most. It's no wonder that many are now looking to London with barely concealed schadenfreude.

"The man in the country looks at the capital and doesn't recognize himself," says John Lanchester, a scholar, writer and Londoner. For years, Lanchester's books have been an examination of an increasingly depraved metropolis, a scrutiny of the spiritual vacuity of a city that has transformed greed into a form of art, far beyond the borders of the banking district. A city that views money as a value in and of itself. Welcome to capitalistic hell.

Lanchester is sitting in Soho House in the heart of London, the perfect venue for a discussion about the city's development. Soho House isn't just a kind of private club for the global elite of young squares and pseudo-entrepreneurs, it is also a foreign object hovering over the foreign object. An artist setting out to paint portraits of globalization's winners could do worse than setting up her easel here. The rock oysters are delicious.

Lanchester says that the criticism that London has become too large and influential is old, but is still accurate. The deregulation of the financial industry in the 1980s, the so-called Big Bang, increased the chasm between London and the rest of the country. Furthermore, the country's mines closed down at almost exactly the same time, along with its steel mills and shipyards. Workers on the coasts and in the industrial centers didn't just lose their jobs, they also lost their identities -- even as London, this English Gotham, grew and grew.

"The city was obsessed with turning money into even more money," Lanchester says. It was as if London had discovered the magic potion to becoming rich without getting one's hands dirty. Who needs coal and steel when you can make money from money? Lanchester guffaws sarcastically. "When it comes to bank regulations, we ripped up the rulebook in the '80s. Five minutes later, London was the center of global capitalism."

Not Going Anywhere

Will the City of London now move to Paris or Dublin -- or, just as a joke, to Frankfurt? There are banks that want to leave, to some extent at least. Estimates as to how many jobs London might lose range from a couple tens of thousands up to 100,000. Nobody knows how deep the impact will be.

Alison Rose has been working in the financial industry since the 1990s. Cheerful, candid and energetic, Rose is a member of the Royal Bank of Scotland's executive committee and one of the most influential women in the City. She says she has noticed that clients have become more insecure and anxious. She, of course, doesn't know either how the Brexit negotiations will ultimately turn out and whether London-based banks will continue to have full access to European markets, but she isn't pessimistic. On the contrary, she seems quite sanguine.

In the course of her banking career, she says, she has experienced all manner of turbulence, including the crash nine years ago, which triggered the deepest recession Great Britain had seen in decades. But every crisis presents opportunities, Rose says. "The financial industry is extremely agile and good in taking up challenges as they arise." The city will survive, she says, adding that Brexit isn't comparable to 2008.

Most bankers weren't in favor of Brexit, but they will cope with it, she says. "I think the City will cope with Brexit whatever it will look like in the end," Rose says. In other words: We aren't going anywhere. The banking quarter has survived fire, global economic crises and significant financial tremors. It could be that London will lose a portion of its business, but nobody thinks that fired bankers will be wandering through the streets clutching cardboard boxes on the day of Brexit. A bit of risk is part of the game, and it's even better if you can make money from it.

Like Crispin Odey, for example, a hedge fund manager who became a quarter-billion euros richer because he bet against the pound. Among the EU opponents in London are also extremely rich men like Michael Hintze, who also manages a hedge fund, and the head of the sugar producer Tate & Lyle, which hopes to earn higher profits outside of the EU.

Cool, Sexy and Vainglorious

Ironically, despite the vulgarities of its wealthy inhabitants, criticism of globalization never really gained much traction in London. The Occupy movement found few adherents and despite greedy investors and landlords, protests against gentrification and the displacement of the middle class from certain areas of the city are rare. Living in London is a zero-sum game: Either you scratch and claw your way upwards or you fail. Protest is futile.

And if more jobs disappear than feared, would that be so bad? It wouldn't be good for the bankers, of course, nor for the country's coffers, since London produces billions in tax revenue. But isn't it about time that Britain returns to producing more than just financial services and expensive real estate?

The City has had to reinvent itself too often to reject change and a huge number of people profited from the financial industry's Big Bang, including artists. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and all the other Young British Artists were children of Thatcher and fit extremely well into the approaching age of money and mega-egos. They made London cool, sexy and vainglorious. They were rebels who stirred up the city, but more than anything, they had a nose for business.

These days, young artists tend to settle on the city's periphery, in Walthamstow in the north or in Margate, located on the coast a good hour's train ride to the east. There are no statistics indicating how many painters and sculptors still live here, but there is much to indicate that the city is losing its wild progeny. Artists can only afford an apartment in the city once they have already become well known.

A comparison of 30-year-old photos of the city with pictures from today reveals two completely different characters. In 1987, London seemed rough, coarse and cocky. Now, in 2017, it is glossier, with more glass and high-rises. Since the beginning of the 21st century, skyscrapers have been multiplying almost uncontrolled. Western Europe's tallest building, the Shard, sticks up next to the London Bridge like a splinter of the Death Star. Dozens more buildings jut up into the skyline or are being planned, many of them financed from abroad.

On the Path to Cultural Isolation

The face of London is changing, again. The middle class is moving away, including nurses, police officers and teachers, because life in the capital has become unaffordable. "Hardly anyone with a normal job can afford to live in the city center," says architect David Chipperfield. The extremely rich and extremely poor remain behind.

Real estate sites in the internet are full of garages that cost half a million euros and upwards. In the Battersea Power Station on the Thames, which has been transformed into luxury apartments, a 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartment costs almost 700,000 euros. It wouldn't be terribly surprising if Chipperfield was pleased by the lunacy -- he profits from it after all. But ultimately, he says, it is damaging to the city if normal people are pushed out. "Quality of life suffers when the city center turns into a global shopping mall."

Brexit, Chipperfield says, is a disaster for London, purely from a psychological perspective, and the city is on the path to cultural isolation, the architect believes. It will be more difficult for those looking for work to come to Britain in the future, he says, adding that, if talented youth can no longer settle on the Thames, then they will simply develop their ideas elsewhere, which is dangerous for a city that is hungry for talent. Almost two-thirds of those who work at Chipperfield's office at Waterloo Station are from elsewhere in Europe. "Following Brexit, it will become more complicated to hire such people," he says.

Chipperfield is less afraid of a sudden crash than he is of a creeping loss of stature. Thus far, the United Kingdom has brilliantly navigated the tightrope walk between pragmatism and creativity. The country still has a considerable influence in the worlds of fashion, music and design. The emphasis is on still. Prior to the referendum, Chipperfield supported the remain camp. It makes him nervous, he says, that those parts of British society that might feel strengthened by Brexit are so unpredictable: the rowdies, drawing-room fascists and the mafia.

An Attack on the City's Liberal Soul

Like the entire city, the architect stands for a creative, liberal Britain. In the future, of course, he will hardly have trouble attracting clients, he's too famous for that. But like many in the capital, he's uncomfortable with the new country that is slowly emerging, represented by Theresa May. Chipperfield was shocked when she mocked those who saw themselves as "citizens of the world," claiming that they were actually "citizens of nowhere."

That wasn't just an attack on the liberal soul of the city, on its global ambitions, optimism and fairness. It was also an assault on the London dream which holds that everyone in the city can become what they want if they are willing to work for it and have a bit of talent. The entire city is made up of these "citizens of nowhere."

Everyone on the Thames knows that London is doubly vulnerable. First, because the flow of money in the city could slow to a trickle. And second, because in recent years, a huge number of these "citizens of the world" have settled here, with their extremely mobile offices that could quickly move to Singapore or Dublin tomorrow. The real danger is that London could ultimately succumb to its own magic potion.

But would that be all bad? The gulf between rich and poor has become unbridgeable and London can't withstand the discrepancy much longer. A capital has to outshine the surrounding hinterlands, it must be avant-garde. It could be, however, that this capital has become too estranged from the country in which it is located. The excesses, the wealth, the arrogance have all become too great. Perhaps it might even be healthy if Brexit were to act as an impediment. Normalcy is boring, but London could certainly do with a pinch of it.

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