Letter from London — From the March 2017 issue

City of Gilt

Searching for the town I used to love

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In the early 1980s the Southwark side of the River Thames was a wasteland. It had a power station with a tower — a rude finger — for emphasis; you, it says, are screwed, in bricks. The power station is now an art gallery with a loathsome and illiterate name, a legacy of the Blair years and its love of spin: Tate Modern. Next to Tate Modern is the Globe Theatre, a tiny building sitting, I think, in expectation of being crushed. It has the intelligence to look vulnerable, and it is. I went to a twenty-first-birthday party there years ago, when only the foundations had been built. It was nighttime, and my date and I walked down to the river mud and kissed. Ten years later, I met a girl sleeping under Waterloo Bridge, half a mile upriver. She was a runaway; her name was Kimberly. Her hair was blond, her eyes bright with heroin. She was twenty-one years old. Within a month the streets had killed that child. I went to her sad and speechless funeral in Willesden, to the north.

Illustrations by Olivier Kugler

Illustrations by Olivier Kugler

London is now a hollow town, much like New York City. It is not the city that I sought in the river mud, the city that I looked toward as Oz. It is not content to live on its own level, or in its own day; it flies upward and downward. It has become incoherent, an addict seeking space. The rich buy palaces, but they are empty. What is more symbolic than buying space you don’t use? We, the ordinary, can only skulk in the shadows; my shadow is a three-bedroom flat in Camden, above a betting shop with London rats on the stairs. Children throw eggs at my back window because, my husband says, they can see the books, and the books disturb them in ways they do not understand. I look outside, beyond the eggs, and I see a place stripped of people. (I recently visited a state primary school to see if it was right for my boy. I was told that there was space for him because families were moving out; they were not rich enough to live in London.) Belgravia, a calm, pale district beloved by diplomats, is dark at night; to see a lit window is to be stunned. I walked the whole of Kensington Palace Gardens one day, looking at the rotting or renovated mansions — there is nothing in between — and I saw the Duke of Kent, hands in pockets, walking his dog. Does he see, I wondered, what I see, which is polarization and ruin?

London doesn’t know where it stands now. I think Brexit was about space, although there was confusion about who, exactly, had stolen the space — the Russians, the Qataris, and the Chinese, or the Somalis, the Albanians, and the Poles? In the end, the voters blamed the latter because they are idiots. But it was all about space, and it always has been. More for us, less for them. Space for my boy but not for hers. The sky is filled with contemporary palaces that have inane names: the Shard, which is a dagger; the Gherkin, which is a penis; the Walkie-Talkie, which is an outdated communication device with public rooms decorated in homage to the Arnold Schwarzenegger space film Total Recall. It has a disgusting Sky Garden — a greenhouse in the sky — which is not a garden but a taunt: I will take the lack of something, it states, and make it art. But it is not art. It does not grieve.

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’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine was “The Queen and I,” which appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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