I’ve just got back from London, after an absence of about a year in which time

I bought a New York City apartment. I don’t know if that’s why, but this time

was my first visit ever where I didn’t feel in some sense that London was home.

It’s a great city, and I still love it – but after almost 9 years’ absence,

I feel more like a visitor than a Londoner when I’m there.

When I left, London didn’t even have a mayor – now he’s been re-elected,

by a reasonably

comfortable margin. I think he’s done a great job: the congestion charge

was sheer genius, backed up with a Giuliani-like determination to push it through

in the face of enormous inertia. And Ken’s not resting on his laurels: he’s

upped the charge to £8 from £5, and is likely both to raise it again

and to extend the congestion area to include a large chunk of Kensington and


At these sort of levels (£8 is $14 at today’s exchange rate), people

only drive in to central London when they really need to. Ken also seems to

have tweaked the timings on London traffic lights so that they stay on red for

longer than they used to, with more time given over for pedestrians instead.

At the same time, he’s invested heavily in the bus system, which is clean, cheap

and efficient. When I lived in London, I almost never took buses; now, when

I visit, I take them the whole time.

The upshot is that the number of cars in central London is down dramatically,

while the number of people taking buses is increasing

impressively. Bus mileage is at its highest point since 1957, and ridership

grew more than 38 per cent between 2000 and 2005. Last year there were 1.8 billion

passenger trips on buses – by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that

equates to easily tens of millions of car journeys through central London which

Ken has stopped from happening. In the process, he’s made life much nicer for

anybody wanting to get around the capital.

Traffic is even lighter, it feels, at the weekends, when the congestion charge

is not in force: it really seems as though Ken has changed Londoners’ habits,

and helped them to move away from a reliance on their cars.

Of course, the vast majority of people not taking a car are taking public transport

instead, which is why the attacks of July 7 were so particularly nasty. In nearly

every way, however, the bombings didn’t really change anything, which is wonderful.

I was in London for the rally afterwards, and for the very touching 2-minute

silence the following Thursday – Londoners were certainly hit hard by

what happened. But to their eternal credit, they didn’t react by lashing out

at anybody, and they bore the disruption with stoicism and general good humour.

I simply can’t imagine New Yorkers reacting the same way. If 50 people were

killed by suicide bombers in the subway here, all manner of chaos would probably

ensue, and I daresay underground ridership would fall noticeably for many months

before a lot of people felt safe getting on a subway train again.

Londoners even coped well with what to me was an extremely worrying turn of

events: the attempt at a second suite of bombings, two weeks after the first.

Go back to those buses: on average, the amount of time one should expect to

wait for a bus to arrive is equal to the amount of time one has already been

waiting. Terrorist attacks are the same. In the immediate aftermath of September

11, we all feared that another attack was imminent. Today, almost four years

later, we – quite rationally – feel safer. London, similarly, had

gone a long time without any terrorist incident, and I very much hoped that

July 7 would be the last attack for many years. The fact that the peace lasted

only two weeks is very bad news: it implies that similar attacks might well

come sooner rather than later.

Clearly, the Metropolitan Police got even more worried than I did, since the

following day they ended up pumping eight bullets into the head of a perfectly

innocent Brazilian chap whose main mistake was living in the same block of flats

as – well, we don’t know, but in any case it was a block of flats which

the police were interested in.

I do understand that if you’re pointing a gun at (a) a suicide bomber who is

(b) armed and (c) capable of exploding himself and killing any number of people

around him, it makes sense to kill him. I also understand that in the heat of

a chase and in a situation requiring split-second decisions, no one can make

the right decision every time. But. The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police


that there have been seven incidents like the one on July 21 just since July

7: that’s one every 65 hours on average. No shoot-to-kill policy should come

into play every 65 hours: that’s a guarantee that it won’t be very long until

a tragic mistake like this one is made.

I was horrified at the news that the executed man was innocent: the idea of

shooting someone in cold blood like that seemed very unBritish. My father said

that the police kill innocent people all the time in places like New York, but

I don’t think that’s true. I can’t think of any case here since Bloomberg was

elected and appointed Ray Kelly as police commissioner – I’d be very interested

to hear if there has been one. In fact, I’d love to see numbers on how many

people were killed by NYPD cops altogether during the Bloomberg administration.

In any case, shooting suspects repeatedly in the head without any intelligence

as to their identity is a desperate act of a police force which does not seem

to be in control of the situation, and I suspect, after reading William Finnegan’s

article about the NYPD in last week’s New Yorker, that it wouldn’t happen here.

Not that I want to find out.

But there was a big difference between 9/11 and 7/7, and not simply that of

scale. 9/11 was an attack on America, and on New York, and, I suppose, on the

Free World. "We are all Americans now" and all that. 7/7, by contrast,

felt much more like an attack on Londoners than on London. London itself got

back to relatively normal relatively quickly: the carnage and horror was mostly

hidden away underground. The long-term effects of 7/7 will be felt mostly in

the lives of hundreds of people which have been ruined; the long-term effects

of 9/11 are, by contrast, global.

I feel that now New York is less at risk from a terrorist attack than London

is. Say what you like

about the silliness of randomly inspecting bags on the New York subway: for

terrorists planning an attack on a major city, where any major city will do,

New York must now be pretty far down their list. New Yorkers might hit New York,

but I just don’t think New York has militant Islamist youth in the way that

England does. For a militant Islamist Englishman, London is the obvious target

– and the events of the past few weeks are proof that there is a significant

number of such men, willing to explode both themselves and their compatriots.

Yet at the same time London still felt friendlier and more vibrant, in many

ways, than New York. It’s certainly not as convenient a place to live: I spent

£30 on one cab ride from Waterloo to Dulwich, and London’s low-rise nature

means that you’re always a longer walk from any urban amenity than you’re likely

to be in NYC. But Brixton feels wonderfully alive – more so than ever,

really – and is even yuppifying in a very multiethnic way, with an incredibly

good new modern Caribbean restaurant called Moca

which I would heartily recommend to everyone. Just down the road, in Brockwell

Park, is the fabulous lido – a

hugely enjoyable and varied day could easily be spent soaking up reggae performances

in the park, swimming in the pool, occasionally retreating to the calm of the

walled garden at the top of the hill, and never even leaving the confines of

one park in a relatively forgotten corner of south London.

London’s one of those rarities: a city which is at its best in the summer.

The festivals, the bank holidays, the Proms, the Carnival, the precious days

of wonderful weather – no wonder plane tickets are so expensive. I went

there at a fraught and trying time, and still left loving the city, admiring

its inhabitants, and grinning inwardly every time I saw an ad for the Toyota

Prius saying that Ken Livingstone had decided to waive the congestion charge

for electric cars. Once, on a bus going through Knightsbridge, a fellow passenger

and I exchanged glances as a very large and extremely loud American family "joked"

around on the upper deck of the bus, annoying everyone but themselves. "Those

Americans, what can you do" was the unspoken message we were sending each

other: "we Londoners just have to grin and bear it". But I felt like

a bit of a fraud: I’m not a Londoner any more, and in fact I’m a New Yorker,

which almost (but not quite) qualifies me as being an American myself.

So I come back from wonderful homestyle

food on Rivington Street to wonderful

homestyle food on Rivington Street, and I’m happy with the place I’ve ended

up. I’ll miss London, especially in the summer, but I still think that the corner

of Avenue B and 3rd Street is the best possible place in the world to live.

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13 Responses to London

  1. We now know that tube use did go down. 15% in a week, I think. That’s a bit surprising, because Londoners did seem to be acting like Londoners and rising above it.

  2. Take Back the Streets – New York Needs a Congestion Zone

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    It’s ironic that Socialist Mayor Red Ken Livingstone has outraged some of his voters by proposing a plethora of London skyscrapers. We are talking about one new building every 18 months for the next 15 years, says Livingstone. Why is that ironic? Becau…

  4. Felix says:

    Not surprising: the Picadilly line wasn’t working at all, the Circle line was completely down, and large chunks of the Northern line weren’t working either — plus there were other repairs and snafus to the system. I’d guess that much more than 15% of the normal trains weren’t running, so if tube use only went down 15%, that’s a good sign that Londoners were rising above it.

  5. Jame says:

    I know how you feel about returning to an adopted home city. I like leaving New York as much as I like going there; the sense of relaxation upon arriving in Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok is very different from, say, the stress of showing up in Manhattan or Philly and wondering why the hell there’s no one around to change money for me.

    Although it’s a little different for me being so obviously a foreigner, not speaking Chinese, etc. At least an Englishman in New York can sort of blend in. (Hell, who can’t blend into New York?) It’s more like Hong Kong is a lifestyle than a geography that I call home, although now that I’m married to a Hong Kong lady, it is actually becoming a home in a more physical, tangible way, whether I want it to be so or not. How queer.

  6. having a thought just after pushing the button is the virtual equivalent of the response you think of after leaving the room

    i wonder what people did? take buses? walk farther?

    i was staying in Holborn when the red line was down. before the congestion zone i would walk a little farther but still take the tube — my use was down 0% unless I was going to oxford street.

    after the congestion zone, i took more buses. my tube use went down, but i bought an unlimited pass and my public transport use went way up. it’s a shame they’re getting rid of the old doubledeckers where it’s so easy to hop on and off. they contribute to the ease of using the bus: when the ride is “free” you want to be able to jump on and off. the advantage of those buses over tubes is not only that bus stops are closer than tube stops, but that on the old double deckers you’re not confined to the stops — anytime the bus stops or even slows down enough you can get on or off.

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