Broken Glass

Norton Folgate Demolition
Picture: Inspiring City

With Soho fast becoming a corporate shopping plaza and East End pubs smashed to the bone and re-branded as microbreweries. I find myself conflicted by the changing shape of London. Like Google’s Pac-Man eating its way through the city, the shabby old London is being swept away.

Pretty quickly you’ll have nothing left but glass apartments and rich men with tattoos. It feels decadent and precious to complain about this. Like everyone else, the world you leave behind will be virtually unrecognisable to the one you were brought up in.

The Griffin

Generation Z won’t notice the difference and individually you’re powerless to resist. But I feel immensely sad walking through Norton Folgate and Shoreditch seeing rows of Victorian warehouses earmarked for demolition. For me they are as beautiful and relevant to London’s cultural heritage as anything in Chelsea or Kensington.

Aldgate
Picture: The Urban Adventures of Keïteï

With luxury developers blinding future generations of their cultural inheritance, it feels cruel and unnecessary to see London’s rough edges destroyed. When I first moved to East London in early 2008, I remember arriving at Aldgate East tube station feeling a raw, dirty sensation. I loved the textural grace and industrial facades of Shoreditch immediately. I remember feeling incredibly naive and very much alive.

Jack the Ripper

Exploring my local area at the weekends, I spotted ivy clad philanthropist mansions, rows of broken factories and scary old man pubs serving only Fosters. After dark the Gerkin would sparkle in the distance and Jack the Ripper walking tours were growing in popularity.

Ironically there is nothing to see on these Ripper tours, almost all the original sites have been knocked down or rebuilt to such an extent they are virtually unrecognisable. It’s pretty hard to ‘feel the atmosphere’ standing outside a Pret A Manger.

The White Hart Whitechapel

Living in Whitechapel and Bow for eighteen months, my favourite Victorian free house was the White Hart, a corner pub frequented by Cockney geezers and ragtag students. Always a bear pit on Champions League nights, everyone would pack into the pub like a seventies football terrace, creating a better atmosphere than the games themselves.

The food was terrible and you wouldn’t dream of making eye contact with the West Ham fans, but it captured the ramshackle atmosphere of E2. Like many East London boozers it has been converted into a gourmet restaurant now. Walking past the upgraded venue in 2015, the microbrewery is busier than ever before serving pan roasted sea-bass, pesto mash and tender-stem broccoli.

There is nothing inherently wrong with gourmet restaurants and demographics will inevitably shift and evolve over time. Only entering the refurbished White Hart Brew Pub™ you could literally be in any UK chain bar ordering locally sourced fish for £16.50.

It’s safe, predictable and meticulously branded just like their Facebook page.

The views of the local community about the development of Spitalfields are 'cynically disregarded'

Its not only working-class pubs that are being gutted of their cultural heritage. Silk weavers homes, Georgian townhouses, children’s hospitals and historic trading markets have all been replaced by luxury flats over the past ten years.

Across London the grubby underbelly of alternative counter-culture is being slowly dismantled to the point there will be nothing left. Gone already are the dirty jazz clubs and bohemian squats in Soho. They are even demolishing an arthouse cinema for the financial benefit of a tiny global minority.

Madam Jojos

Destroying what made the area so attractive to visitors in the first place, global capitalism is paradoxically eating itself. Does anyone want to arrive in Spitalfields on a Sunday afternoon and discover nothing but ghastly office blocks and chain coffee shops?

Most people assume all change is growth and movement must go forward, but I am not sure this is necessarily true. Perhaps I am lucky to live here while the residue of past centuries are still visible.

London will inevitably change as buildings are not supposed to last forever. Like any other city in the Western world; fashions evolve, communities die and modernist epochs will be grafted onto any available space. But do you want to live in a smart city where everything looks the same? An urban fire forest that sparkles at night and morphs into dullness at day. Rough edges still have a role to play in my book. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.

The trouble is, you think you have time

Global Warming

What would you do if you were told you only had fourteen years to live? It’s not cancer. It’s far worse than that. Floods haven’t been on the news recently but they aren’t going away and according to scientist James Lovelock climate change is going to unleash environmental devastation and by 2040 southern Europe will be a desert.

With global populations continuing to rise and third world countries developing a taste for red meat, the average British millenial is in a race to the bottom. And if James Lovelock is correct you should party like its £19.99 because you don’t have long left.

“Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”

– James Lovelock, March 2008

James Lovelock is convinced climate change is inevitable and ethical living a scam. Recycling, wind turbines, planting nice trees – it’s a complete waste of time, the damage is already done and paying 10p for a shopping bag at Sainsbury’s won’t make a difference.

Ethical living is akin to a smoker quitting on his deathbed, it might make you feel better, but that’s all it will do. And you thought forking out for those solar panels was a good investment. Well your Dad probably thought so. But if you’re reading this you probably don’t even have a flat, let alone flash panels soaking up rays on a double garage.

If recycling pizza leaflets and beer bottles won’t save the planet, then what exactly can we do? Start paying 35p for the plastic bags we stuff underneath the sink? Grow carrots and potatoes in our back gardens and eat less meat?

Wait, statistically you live in an urbanised sprawl and don’t have a garden or any sustainable land. Your everyday survival is entirely reliant on the mass importation of food into corporate supermarkets.

Burgerthons

As a species we are tribal carnivores genetically programmed to eat everything we can. A risky gambit if you live on a small island that imports 40% of its consumed food. If Lovelock is correct and global catastrophe is only 16 years away then enjoy your burgerthon festivals and 2 for 1 pizzas while you still can. You can’t feed yourself on Twitter.

In that respect Generation Y doesn’t have much to live for and we’re the lucky ones. It’s your kids and unborn progeny, who are really going to suffer. Generation Z is fittingly apt because according to Lovelock “about 80%” of the world’s population will be wiped out by 2100.

The Trouble Is, You Think You Have Time

You see this Buddha meme reposted on social media all the time. It’s probably fake but in the context of a forthcoming global apocalypse it’s worth paying attention to. With a decaying eco-system and billions of new hungry mouths wanting a first world lifestyle, there isn’t much point saving for a mortgage.

As your dream home is either going to be flooded or raided by starving vigilantes looking for something to eat. If Lovelock is correct then you don’t have long left before pale blue dot metamorphoses into a dead planet. If you fancy a career break backpacking around South America, then enjoy the precious time you have left, or hope Lovelock is an alarmist mad scientist with nothing to lose.

If you stay at home and do nothing else, then savour every gourmet burger, chicken fillet and goats cheese salad you eat and pay virtually nothing for the privilege. Generation Z are going to pay that dividend for you.

A Stateless Nation

On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

The Last of the Monoglots

As an island nation geographically isolated from continental Europe, speaking foreign languages has never been Britain’s forte. With the majority of English speaking residents having no practical need to speak anything else, most UK citizens have never bothered to learn a foreign language. Apart from going on holiday a few weeks a year, where the hotel staff, waiters and tourist information guides inevitably all speak English anyway.

What incentive do you have to learn a new language that you will probably never use? Speaking foreign languages in Britain is essentially a bourgeois luxury – a cultural reference point for the urban middle classes, a demographic who want to order a bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir with their friends on holiday.

With the majority of the population immune to foreign languages, the number of students taking A-levels in England and Wales has fallen to a new low. Likewise Scotland is not faring any better with more than half of all foreign language assistants in state schools axed due to budget cuts.

In a provincial region such as Aberdeenshire, which is geographically isolated even in the context of Scotland, the majority of students don’t leave the North East after graduating. Bordering only England what practical incentive does an English speaking child in Scotland have to learn German or French? A truck driver from Luxembourg or Switzerland will be expected to speak at least three or four languages in order to communicate with their clients.

Linguistic exchanges are certainly not something a Scottish driver has to worry about when he or she travels through Cumbria to England. With the English language establishing itself as the global lingua franca due to the British Empire and the economic dominance of the United States, British citizens don’t really have much incentive to learn any language other than their own.

If France had won the Seven Years’ War and North America became a French colony then the English language might have been seriously challenged. Such is the historical power of this Anglo-American hegemony then unless British students are learning new languages purely for intellectual reasons the rewards are pretty slim. Understanding all the grammatical peculiarities, complexities and declensions is a tall order, like learning a code, and then you have to be confident enough to express yourself fluently.

The UK education secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed that every child aged five or over should be learning a foreign language at school. Speaking in the Guardian newspaper, Gove says “understanding a modern foreign language helps you understand English better” and “there is no one who is fluent in a foreign language who isn’t a masterful user of their own language”.

It’s hard to dispute this and teaching languages at nursery level, where children can learn easily is probably the best way ahead. What language should these children learn to speak though? English still remains the superpower of languages despite Mandarin’s numerical advantage. Will young children ever have the chance to converse in French, German or Spanish?

Languages were never meant to be the ornamental indulgences of the upper-middle classes. Speaking in a foreign tongue requires constant practice and attention. As native speakers of the global language, British citizens are almost given a carte blanche to be lazy. Unless you can practice a new language on a regular basis then these early linguistic abilities are incredibly fragile. Britain is arguably a victim of her geographical isolation and imperial past when it comes to learning new languages.

In the Tamil Nadu state of Southern India, most citizens can speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayam and Kanada by the age of twelve. With the majority of South Indians having to learn the state language of Hindi and English to communicate with the outside world, Britain’s monolingualism looks increasingly parochial.

If the UK education secretary’s proposals are implemented on a national scale then perhaps in 30 or 40 years time, the current generation of monoglots will be an endangered species. Somehow you don’t need to speak three languages to realise not even the most successful of human empires will last forever.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Revolution

As Madrid is more of a national capital than an international one like London or Paris, the British press have perhaps not given Spain’s “los indignados” the attention they deserve. Over 60, 000 Spanish youths held spontaneous protests in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia in May 2011, rebelling against the socialist government’s austerity measures. A decade of unemployment and emigration beckons for tens of thousands of Spanish graduates.

Youth unemployment among 16 to 29-year-olds is estimated to be around 45 per cent. Upturned in the Puerta de Sol are stolen crates, graffiti slogans and multiple plastic tents full of sticky protesters eating tinned food in brutally hot temperatures. Indignant in their defiance, the “los indignados” are demanding new jobs, public investment and changes to the government’s austerity plans but their wishes have fallen on deaf ears. Spain like so many other debt-ridden European nations has elected a centre-right government into power.

Madrid’s tent city should perhaps serve as a reminder that political dissent has not always been tolerated in Europe. For this red scar of rebellion may be gathering momentum in 2011 but situated in a former hospital is a heart stopping reminder of Spain’s fascist past. Forming an integral part of the holy trinity of Madrid’s historic art museums, the Museo Reina Sofía is renowned throughout the world for hosting Picasso’s Guernica.

Awe inspiring and superbly displayed, this icon of twentieth-century European art is one of the few universal masterpieces that commands a religious silence from all visitors. Displayed on the second floor, the art crowds flock to Guernica all year round and cross-legged school children listen attentively to the horrific origins of the painting. Picasso painted it as a response to the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937.

As a universal symbol against the fight against fascism, Guernica is a brutal reminder that under General Franco Spain was a military dictatorship until the late 1970s. On forming a one party state, the Falange, political censorship was vigorously enforced under Franco. Trade unions were banned. Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were severely censured and political opponents were mercilessly executed. The majority of Britons will be unable to comprehend the level of repression suffered in Spain during this period. Most people in the UK understandably take the liberal fruits of universal suffrage and freedom of speech for granted.

Britain is one of the oldest and most stable democracies in the modern world, and has enjoyed peaceful growth from 1945 until the present day. Guernica is a potent reminder that Britain has enjoyed its most comfortable, safe and prosperous period in its living history. The global recession of 2008 has triggered violent rioting in Greece and led to tens of thousands of protesters kicking spokes in the hub of Madrid’s wheel.

Britain’s anti-cut march in London attracted over 200, 000 people but it feels strangely weak and deeply uninspiring compared to the demonstrations in Madrid. The protest was quickly forgotten after a day’s headlines. And it will be most likely remembered for the self-aggrandising violence of a hundred upper-middle class anarchists. Spain feels different.

Although history will judge how effective the Spanish revolution will be in what is going to be a very difficult decade for Europe. A generational time bomb is slowly ticking because of this economic crisis. Unemployment and living costs continue to rise across the continent. But if history is to offer any guide, and hard as this is to admit, sometimes you have to travel across your own borders to realise how lucky Britain really is.