by Lisa McKenzie
This is a love letter to working class Londoners struggling every fucking second of every fucking day trying to survive – disappearing into the walls of the packed public transport that they travel further and further on to get to a job that doesn’t pay the rent.
After 7 years of living in London, I’m out. I’ve gone to the north east, to County Durham. I could no longer eat whatever was in the clearance aisle at the supermarket while paying a landlord rent that is more than most people outside of London earn. It was making me sick: literally, the air is full of concrete particles from the residue of ‘redeveloped’ – or, rather, bulldozed – council estates. London was sitting on my lungs, and I couldn’t breathe.
London was making me sick: the stress of finding that rent every month filled me with fear and anxiety, and I was not alone. Working class Londoners share a collective fear and anxiety – you can feel daily on the tube, on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket. It’s electric, it’s frightening; it’s also addictive, knowing that people’s anger can, and does, explode constantly.
Hundreds of thousands of working class Londoners subsumed and trying to survive within a city that hates them — a city that ignores them, pretending not to see their graft. Cleaners, shop workers, public transport workers, the homeless, the unemployed and the sick: those made sick by London are everywhere. On night buses trying to kip safely, in sleeping bags on Oxford Street (sometimes sharing the pavement with boxing day shoppers and Apple geeks waiting for the annual launch of a yet another iPhone). Those made sick by the most expensive, unequal city in Europe are everywhere, moving through the city on mopeds, sometimes with knives – children stabbing children for the only thing they have left: respect.
The elders have disappeared into their flats: coming out means facing a city that has been their home but is now hostile towards them. Their children have often left, or been forced out by rising rents and diminishing social housing while a hostile new ‘Londoner’ has forced its sharp elbows into their cafes – now coffee and pastry shops. In their old boozers (now gastro-pubs and craft ale tasting centres), the sticky carpets they once did the twist on have been replaced by salvaged parquet flooring. The pints that would cost a couple of quid and were mainly social are now 7 quid, and have become some type of wank middle class weapon in the class war.
Hate is a strong word … but I can’t think of another that adequately describes how London treats its working class. Works them to the bone as they try and pay their ever increasing rents. Mothers with small children are being dispersed because they are not worth the land they live on – the small spaces they inhabit are needed by India and Sacha to have a ‘Year Here’ (middle class people squatting east London communities to gawp at the working class and put it on their fucking CV). Nans and granddads are finding space on sofas and pull-out beds for grandchildren with nowhere to go. Children sharing beds and bedrooms with their parents – all are exhausted – while daily they look out of the bus window and see the glass and chrome penises exploding from the ground and forcing themselves on the London skyline.
It’s a violent act.
Violence surrounds London. It’s everywhere. From the violence of the glass and chrome penises in the sky; to the aggression of landlords demanding rent they know is unfair, unjust and nothing but greed; to local councils, bureaucrats and administrators, and the political representatives that waive through – push through – the agendas of bosses and speculators while pretending they are doing anything good. Can’t argue with democracy.
Special words must be saved for these, the London vultures, swooping in on misery. Whether it’s those that see a business opportunity out of capitalism’s defeat of the working class (we used to call these profiteers and during wartime they would be incarcerated). Or the revolving door of local representatives/opportunists’/power zombies. I can’t distinguish between them: local councillor, Mayor, Member of Parliament, Oxbridge journalist, the chattering class – or as one bloke down the last remaining boozer in Bethnal Green called them “the cunts”. Their faces, their voices, their media trained mannerisms; their blandness and fake concern seep through their skin like the sweat falls off the working class woman’s brow while she cleans their offices – like the tears that fall down her face as she weeps for the future of her children.
Oh London is shit, its full of it. The Instagram creatives with a trust fund and their endless whining about the state of capitalism as they ignore the minimum wage worker that just handed them their fucking skinny soya latte; or take a selfie outside someone’s home because they think a council estate is edgy; or spray paint ‘a piece’ of corporate and state sanctioned art on Brick Lane, knowing or caring nothing for the local businesses, people, families and communities that are being forced out because of their “creativity”. Asking fucking permission from the council is not fucking creative. Cunts.
London is run by cunts. The Mayor of London’s office supports every shit re-development from Croydon BoxPark to the removal of Gallions Point Marina on the Thames, handing out public money to football clubs, international banks, and the Olympics, while getting a photo opportunity with Bono. Is Westfield really worth the misery of the removal of the traveller community that had lived there for generations? Or the destruction of London’s last dog track, and along with it a working class sport, culture and tradition that was simply not worthy of the eyes of the new residents in the “East Village”? Do me a fucking favour. High-rise hotel rooms in the sky rented for £2,000 a month with a Pret-a-Manger at the bottom are not the same as a village, even if it has got a boulevard of smog-choked trees sprouting out of the concrete.
London is shit, it’s full of shit — but Londoners, working class Londoners, you deserve better. Join me in the north. There is fresh air, and a bit of space to breathe. Let’s leave the Insta-creatives, the bankers, the politicians, the media luvvies, and the chattering classes to make their own fucking coffee.
Lisa Mckenzie is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Durham University and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain. Her new book Class Cleansing: Grieving for London is out in 2020.
Illustration by Nick Hayes.
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