London is often celebrated as a global city, a ‘global city’ something to be considered proud of, something which elevates you from the jetsam and flotsam of muddy provincial backwaters, stuffy and stagnating.
London, the global city invokes international businessmen, financiers, brokers, billionaires, oligarchs and Arabs with multi-million pound town houses, mansions and penthouses, immigrants escaping unspeakable violations, intimidations and warfare, diplomats and embassies, and immigrant communities, with their attendant traditions, food and religious and cultural expectations and practices.
It also invokes airplanes, airports, statistics about how many people pass through or visit London every year, tourists and tourists’ money, the Olympics and other grand events, international diplomacy and international protests. It makes me think of dingy money transfer shops, insalubrious grocers whose produce is labeled in badly written English, selling anything and everything from yarns to plantain to lime leaves, shops in Southall, also known as little India, which advertise the fact that they sell Western food, Wembley High Street and the area around West Ham United football club packed full of Muslims from all around the world, free South African London newspapers piled up in a shelf outside Kings Cross train station, sodden from the falling rain, children in Thailand whose survival depends on their mother’s work in the brothels of Soho, and children orphaned in African civil wars trafficked into London based African families to work as domestic labour and objects of sexual practice for the males in the household.
However in all seriousness, the discussion about whether and how London is a global city requires some further examination, starting with some consideration as to quite what it means to be considered a global city.
Every city is a global city, to the extent that it is situated on the globe that is the planet earth. But there are, arguably three ways in which London could be considered a global city, in which other cities on this planet might not qualify at all or to quite the same extent that London does. And thirdly, London is networked to places around the world. Second, London is a city, which the rest of the world impacts on, on a regular basis. Third, London is a city, which impacts on the far reaches on the planet.
Capital of the financier
London is being hollowed out, and rebuilt, being prepared for a new citizenry, a loosely associated cabal of financiers, bankers and investors, from around the world, who have, since Margaret Thatcher’s decision to deregulate banking in the city of London, been ushered into their new cozy home, by a succession of politicians and statesmen, who have fluffed up cushions, arranged the flowers and the welcome, lowered tax rates and burdens. The powers of local authorities have been withdrawn for them to make way for these new types of space and land, the borders of the city of London have been shifted northwards to accommodate the new foot soldiers of capital, the glass and steel towers of Broadgate, which have eaten into the southern borders of Hackney.
The whole place is being prepared as a denationalized entity, a workspace for those that do the bidding of capital, a twenty-first century Downton Abbey. Greeks, French, Italians and Americans have plush rabbit hutches, next to their officer in Canary Wharf or the city of London, close to London City Airport, financially dependent on the flows of money that pass through London, but still emotionally and physically connected to their homelands, thanks to the proximity to the London City of Airport, Skype, FaceTime, mobile phones and the internet.
The celebration of London as a global city then, is in part, reference to its popularity amongst some of the world’s wealthiest people, to the fact that this class of wealth people are being ushered in to recreate London, as part of an attempt to socially cleanse the city of normal working types, of Brits, of the English, of Cockneys, of the ordinary salt of the earth types, of labourers.
The celebration of London as a global city is of course reference to its colonial past, to the fact that it used to be the brain, which helped co-ordinate the British Empire, one that encompassed India, Pakistan, China, Australia and South Africa, wherever anyone plays crickets, and the United States. It was an empire so vast that it was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, it was a truly global enterprise, and London was its capital.
Entertainments & Services Capital
Even if London does not entertain the wealth of every man and women on planet earth, the size of the financial flows that travel through London, and the number of millionaires and billionaires that live here have created dens of opulence, dens that have been here since the days of Empire, to be found in south-west central London, from Mayfair to Kensington. Independently of whether the wealthy invest their money in London’s finance houses, London is also, for its wealth of entertainments and opulence, its casinos, escort agencies, restaurants and clubs, a place to be seen by the world’s global rich.
There used to be a London season for Victorian aristocrats. There has, since the 1970s, been a London season for the world’s wealthiest Arabs, looking for an outlet to splurge all of their easily-earned oil wealth away form the prying eyes of Imams and locals. In June 2012, The Economist, carried a piece on Steve Varsano, a New Yorker, who sells private jets from an office on Hyde Park Corner, and moved from America to London at the beginning of the decade. Said Varsano, ‘Anybody that can afford a jet comes to London. The only bits of London they know are Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Mayfair. They all have to stop at that light. As the car swings round, the guy in the back seat has to look into my showroom. I have the best window on the four continents’.
Hundreds of properties in southwest London, lavishly decorated, and some with servants who clean the houses and arrange fresh flowers every day, are bolt holes, for wealthy people, with a fondness for a weekend in London every now and then. Belgravia is believed to be full of such properties, which explains, why, according to some, it is dead from morning to night, most days. Parts of London have turned incredibly quiet, where it seems, no-one lives, or at least no-one makes a noise. Are they tucked up in bed, with a copy of the Koran or a bottle of vodka? No, they are simply not there. Cally Law, writing for Times Online, has said that the areas preferred by the global elite, Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Belgravia, are ‘virtually deserted after dark’. She went on, ‘These are London’s ghost ghettos, occupied either as pieds-à-terres by inhabitants of the home counties or lived in for only a few weeks each year by a shifting population of the world’s super wealthy.’ It was reported that in Chelsea Harbour, as 60% of flatowners keep them as second homes. Law finished off with a story provided to her by an estate agent about a Middle Eastern client who bought a flat in Lowndes Square in 1993 for £550,000. The client was reported to have refurbished the flat, staffed it for five years, and equipped it with two Rolls-Royces with seven miles on the clock. In those five years the owner spent just three nights there, and eventually sold, in 1998, for £1.8m. The Rolls-Royces had seven miles on the clock. Another article states, ‘Wander down The Bishop’s Avenue in north London, which boasts Britain’s highest concentration of multimillion-dollar homes, and you’ll find the place practically deserted. Said one estate agent, ‘For a lot of people, this is their third or fourth home and sometimes they lose interest. They can’t be bothered to live here and they can’t be bothered to sell.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 2006).
For the concentration of wealth its also a center of high-class services, the doctors on Harley Street, the hospitals on Portland Road, the lawyers in Temple and Chancery Lane.
The Economist (2012) On a high, June 30th 2012.