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.