Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Weeping for London |
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Weeping for London

Watching Sydney Harbour Bridge erupt in coloured flames to mark the end of a brilliantly organized Olympics, I wept for London, city of the dud Dome and the invisible River of Fire. Last week I was in Paris and wept for London again. When I first came to Europe forty years ago, the London Underground and the Paris Metro were much of a muchness, even if the Metro had the edge in style. Now the comparison draws tears of blood. I still travel on the Tube, but only when there is no appointment waiting for me at the other end, because it might have to wait forever. Also I am getting to the age when a long staircase starts to matter. The Metro has an unfair advantage there: dug shallow, it needs few escalators. But in all other respects the Metro’s supremacy is a clear case of intelligent management. At St-Germain in the late afternoon there was still room down in the entrance hall for a Piaf-style singer good enough to pull a shower of coins. The train came hissing in on rubber tyres: wheels that don’t wear out rails. In my carriage there was a live jazz band playing Hot Club standards. When I got off at Châtelet, there was a woman on the platform reciting Racine’s Phèdre from memory at the top of her voice. Nobody mocked her and many listened in respect as the perfectly cadenced alexandrines resonated in the station’s tiled vault. She was probably a nut, but might well have been a licensed busker like all the others. Look at the map and you will see that all I had done was cross the river, but the trip was nearly as rewarding as walking across the Pont Neuf, and anyway it was raining. Remember the last time you rode the Tube when it was raining outside? How far did you get? We apologize for the inconvenience caused. Or, to quote the new and even odder version: ‘We apologize for the inconvenience caused to your journey.’ Sir Kingsley: ‘Yes, but it isn’t my journey that’s being inconvenienced, is it? It’s me, you posturing sod.’

With John Prescott in charge of the finances, no doubt the London Undergound will soon be fixed. After all, he was the man who saved the Dome. Without him, it might never have happened, and we would have been deprived of the best long-running entertainment since Nimrod. I have always liked the cut of Prescott’s jib: in this government he stands out like a good man in a bad advertising agency. But it is often a mistake to suppose that honesty precludes cunning. I bet it was his idea to stage the Dome jewel robbery, which would have been a PR masterstroke except for one crucial flaw. The fact that it was a bungled robbery was right in keeping: the spectacle of the blaggers bouncing their hammers off the armoured glass was pure Dome. But the actors playing the Sweeney mucked it up. They should have arrested those children for singing hymns without a licence. Instead they arrested the villains, thus transmitting a fatal air of competence. The essence of Dome culture is that nothing must go right.

A few years of weathering have done nothing for the Centre Pompidou, which still looks like the place where all the world’s sewer pipes come together in conference, but you have only to go up to the fourth floor to see what it’s got that the Tate Modern hasn’t: paintings, properly arranged. Again, the French have a certain advantage. Most of the painters were either born in France or else lived there, so the State had ready access to so much good stuff that not even Goering could manage to take it all away. But as with the Metro, those in charge know how to capitalize on a lucky break. The paintings are grouped so that you can see who’s who, what’s what, and when’s when. (The same applies on the top floor of the Musée d’Orsay: first the Impressionists, then the Post-Impressionists. Get it?) The present arrangement of the Tate Modern is meant to discount all that, purportedly so as to enlarge our comprehension, really so as to make the holes in the collection look less gaping. But the conceptual drivel written on the walls is a fearful price to pay, and the Domish impulse behind the whole effort is neatly symbolized by the glowing plastic cap placed on top of an otherwise impressive building in order to deconstruct its monumentality. Over and above the candy-tipped chimney, or rather below it and stretched out flagrantly ahead, is that unbeatable testament to architectural arrogance, the bridge that rewrites the rules of suspension with such virtuosity that it doesn’t work. Paris has one just like it, but I doubt if its creator will get another commission for anything bigger than a funfair ticket booth. In London, the same genius responsible for our non-crossable bridge is currently erecting a new obovoid office block for the Mayor, who sensibly doesn’t want to move into it. A country in which Ken Livingstone has become the voice of reason is facing an uphill struggle.

Sydney learned its lesson with the Opera House, which looks sensational from the outside, but whose revolutionary inside caused more trouble than it was worth. The architect, rethinking the conventions of theatrical design to fit a restricted lateral space, proposed to work all the major set-changes from the fly tower instead of the wings. It was expensively discovered that the conventions of theatrical design, like the conventions of bridge suspension, are not susceptible of being rethought. The remains of Utzon’s innovatory fly-tower mechanism are now rusting in a paddock somewhere near Broken Hill. Eventually London’s Dome will reach a similarly obscure destination, but not before all the wrong solutions have been explored. The free market has spoken: the Dome site is worth hundreds of millions more without the Dome. But in this instance the government, with its dwindling prestige on the line, can’t afford to listen to the free market. And you never know, the government might be right for once. It was Mrs Thatcher who gave Blair’s Britain the courage to be born. Believing that the State should get out of the economy, she never grasped that a government is either dirigiste or it is nothing. Apart from an utterly buggered broadcasting system, her lasting and festering bequest is the transport chaos for which Blair will have to take the rap. The Dome might not be enough to sink him — he can always blame Heseltine, dump Prescott or hand Simon Jenkins a poisoned peerage — but the trains could lose him the next election.


Though the Dome went on costing three million pounds a month even to keep empty, its hollow thunder was eventually stolen by the Diana Memorial Fountain, a purpose-built safety hazard whose running expenses perpetually increase as new dangers are revealed. So far it has not bred sharks. In Edinburgh, the Holyrood parliament building was the most ludicrously overpriced folly of the lot, but you had to go north of the border to get its full impact: it was never a joke in England. It should be said that a building project can go a hundred times over budget and still be worth it. Australians justifiably proud of the Sydney Olympics should remember that their beloved Opera House cost its weight in lottery money. The question turns on whether something considerable has been created. It doesn’t have to be admirable: just considerable. I don’t especially like either the Centre Pompidou or the Mitterrand pyramid at the Louvre, but I would have to admit that there are many people who do. About the Dome, no conflict of opinion is possible. The number of people who find it even faintly interesting would be lost in one corner of it, if it had any corners. My invention of the Dome Culture was meant to be a joke in passing, but as time went on I started to wonder whether it might not be possible for a whole nation to contract a case of butter fingers. Christopher Booker put in some valuable work when he identified the virus of Neophilia, but Dome Culture goes far beyond that. Dome Culture is not just an urge to make it new, but to make it ridiculous. The disease may have started with the inexplicable decision of the Post Office, back in the 1970s, to paint a few pillar boxes yellow, to see if the public liked it. The public hated it. So the experimental pillar boxes were painted red again. But that was not true Dome Culture as we have now come to know it. If the Dome gnomes had been in charge, every pillar box in the country would have been painted yellow, and the response to the subsequent outcry would have been a vast multi-media publicity campaign to prove that red is bad for your eyes.

An extra note — This book was already at the stage of its first proofs when the London transport system was attacked on July 7th, 2005. For a while I thought of removing the above piece, because for once the London Underground was no source of mirth. But within a month people were making the same old jokes again, especially the one about the stupidity of any terrorist who thought that the tube needed to be bombed in order to be brought to a halt. I don’t think it was a case of people revealing their essential callousness: they were merely revealing their sense of proportion. I, for one, had spent too much time earning my Freedom Pass to waste any more of it by not using public transport: a free ride is a free ride. The next bunch to attempt an outrage seemed to lack the secret for building bombs that went off, and one could look forward to the day when young people clever enough to succeed in such an enterprise would lose the urge to try it, having noticed, perhaps, that the older men who encouraged them to seek martyrdom were seldom keen to seek it themselves.