Culture & Conversation

Just Back from London

England, that is, where the so-called recession, much on my mind, is as talked-about, as non-evident and as baffling as it is in Toronto. The wealth on the streets is still staggering, though maybe I shouldn’t look for some visible change in what is, after all, one of the capitals of the world.

Restaurants and bars as busy, and the London Book Fair that I was there for remarkably upbeat. What signs of unrest you do see are as easily explained by long history as by whatever ruptures the current economic crisis has brought or is bringing on. Waiting on the tube platform at midnight with my publisher wife, Sarah, after dinner in Soho, we were quickly surrounded by a bunch of French teenagers who might have walked out of The Class, the excellent Laurent Cantet film of François Begaudeau’s novel of a Parisian multicultural city-centre classroom, Entre les murs.

They were loud and vociferous and a part of me was braced to defend against a swarm, except that they were clearly drunk and we were quite used to London’s display of crude drunkenness. In London, the late night traveler returns home to a soundtrack of yelling, boisterousness and not just kids who are completely smashed and throwing up. There is an interesting divide being reinstated, in London, as a result of the recrimination and grim anticipation of the so-called economic crisis.

The lower middle and working classes, the traditional constituency of the prior version of the ruling Labour Party, is hugely pissed off with the perceived siphoning off of wealth by the bankers and the well-to-do. Those who are mostly affected by the print on monthly statements of money they never have to dip into (Tory supporters) are resorting to more and more public loathing of those working and not working unfortunates they regard as being responsible for their higher taxes.

The rich hate paying taxes, a rule anywhere, but even more so where the wealth is so mobile. They hate paying taxes because they imagine that they get nothing from the money they hand over (that sum which they do not evade), and in so far as the incomprehensibly wealthy burghers of Kensington, Hampstead or Notting Hill are unlikely to be using public baths, parks or even transport, they do not.

What they are really paying for, when they pay at all, is the mitigation of social unrest—having all the drunks spilling out onto the sidewalks and the tube platforms and in the city’s squares, climbing their wrought-iron fences and gates tumbling with heady purple wisteria (so beautiful at this time of year) and breaking inside. Who’s to say it won’t happen? Alarmingly, the week of the London Book Fair was also St. George’s Day, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, someone who was at college with me way back when, was using the patron saint of England to stoke up a sense of pride in the city.

Traditionally, the English have been the most muted of the four nations that make up the “United Kingdom”—outside of international football matches, that is—but as anyone today, in Hogarth’s day and before, knows, it does not take much to kindle a moronic, violent and brutal side of English nationalism, either. Drinkers outside the pubs in St. George caps—white, with a red cross, but also a long tail of the dragon he slayed—were just a hint of it.

Meanwhile, at Earl’s Court, the London Book Fair scene was more sedate. The bigger houses were not having such an ecstatic time of it, though Harper Collins had signed the Prince of Wales to a book about the environment, and a five million-unit first printing of the next Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol was announced. (Stupid me, I’d thought he was writing about a marching band, until I saw its tile spelled out.) But really this year’s fair belonged to the mid-sized and smaller houses, whose publishers and reps are generally more enthusiastic, less cowed by the downturn. and more able to adapt. But perhaps this rosier scene was because, at Earl’s Court, a more Spanish idea of St. George’s Day reigned. In Spain, on April 23rd, men give women flowers—and women give men books. Now there’s a tradition to celebrate.

Noah Richler’s Our Man In Toronto column appears regularly on Rover.

Photo by Barbara Stoneham.

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