Friday, 27 February 2009

To ruminate on recession

Rain falls ceaselessly over this ancient city. Here where millions dwell in the cold and damp there are still more who suffer from demons more vicious than the weather. At every corner, on every street there are those who seek solace in the back rooms of pubs and bars. Those who are getting stoned or drunk or both just to escape from their lives for just a little while. Centuries of people have lived here. Centuries of people have died here. Time has carried the city through all the disasters it has faced until today. And time will heal this too. But today, there are so many who cannot walk with a smile on their faces. Some because they don’t wish to display emotion to the rest of the world, others because they have very little to smile about.

Every high street bears the scars – boarded up shops and car dealerships. One more seller of the Big Issue. The streets are deserted by 8pm. Places where families and couples in love used to wander are lonely and desperate. Places where people seek solace from their circumstance are filled to the brim and in this dark underbelly people are able to smile, after a fashion. Most of these are men who have left their wives and children at home, seeking release from the burden of their responsibility.

Light streams from restaurants, the glow illuminating those within. And those without. The candlelight dances in circles at each table, highlighting the pathos of a half empty place. A place where people used to meet, broker business deals, laugh, canoodle, enjoy being human. Through the intermittent pools of light people dressed in grey and black pass like wraiths. Eyes to the ground, they pass without looking in, afraid that if they look through the glass windows they might be reminded of what they have lost.

Armies of the unemployed descend in waves upon the Job Centres. Queues snake around the waiting areas, carrying the venom of disillusionment. There are few here who have hope or faith in the empty promises issuing from Whitehall. Promises of job creation, increased public spending and decreased taxes are an insufficient salve for the wounds of those who have lost their jobs and have children to feed. Faces are haunted by the prospect of a winter without heating, days without fruitful labours and nights wracked with worry.

Billboards and TV adverts declare the plight of the shops as baldly as if they had written “we’re in trouble!” by offering their substantial discounts and savings. People mill aimlessly around shopping centres like stupefied bovines – looking, touching, coveting things they can no longer afford to buy; even with the substantial discount the salesman offers. Outside it is still raining. Redundant rain drops fall to dampen the spirits of the redundant workers below still further. Men campaigning outside a factory ignore the rain and continue their protest against “unlawful” job losses. The placards flash angrily in the rain. Huddled in their coats and under their umbrellas the men vent their frustration, loss and feelings of inadequacy. On their faces it’s clear that most feel that theirs is a futile mission, but they continue none the less. Perhaps because it is easier than going home to admit defeat.

In households all over the city self belief is crucified by job rejections and a scarcity of vacancies. There are now at least fifty applicants for every vacancy. Confidence plummets daily until nothing remains except the barely recognisable shell of someone you once knew. The face is the same. But the twinkle is gone from the eye, the spring missing from their step and the mirth absent from their conversations. These are the people who once had good jobs, who thought themselves indispensable, who attached a sense of value and self respect to the outcome of their annual appraisal. These shells are required to find a new source of self affirmation. Self belief becomes an almost religious experience – as reliant on faith as any denomination. People are nihilists, refusing or incapable of believing that things will improve.

The great city embraces all of these disaffected souls, cradles them in her bosom of light and noise and frenzy. Rocked softly by the whispers and murmurs of cars, tubes, buskers and buses those of us who live in this great place are momentarily comforted by the ancient, iron will we feel running through the city. She will not surrender to poverty, depression or adversity. Not for her the vain tears of desperation and hopelessness. She, who has fed for all these years on the good humour and delight of those who live within her boundaries, has strengthened her resolve and drawn her inhabitants closer to her and to each other. Vainglorious in the face of blight she imbues each person with the same sense of pride. London will cosset her inhabitants until they are able to heal themselves. Londoners will lift their chins in defiance of their own circumstance. They will remember the spirit of their great city and allow themselves to be driven by it. Surrender, hopelessness and despair will not prevail. People will rally together as Londoners, inhabitants of one of the greatest cities in the world. They have sustained worse and the memories of that survival are embedded into every paving stone, cobble and brick. The rain may fall for a hundred years but the city will stand. And Londoners will not stand without.

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