London is bleak in winter: but we can still see the light in the city of darkness
The first line of the song Cities by Talking Heads is, “Think of London, a small city/It’s dark, dark in the daytime.” That is an American perspective, but as Londoners travel to the station or bus stop and then from work to home again, it does feel like being in perpetual shadow. It has been a hard year, and the stress of living and working in London comes in many forms, so reflecting on the challenges of 2023 feels especially gloomy in a city of darkness. It’s tempting to ask why we live here at all.
London is a coalition of eight million strangers, but this year made the alienation feel more pronounced than ever. The capital’s economy is robust, but increasing homelessness is both a literal and symbolic indicator of how much we fail our disadvantaged. London’s borough councils are flirting with bankruptcy or have already been declared so and that manifests itself most painfully in the failure to provide affordable housing, at least housing not rendered uninhabitable by mould.
We have also been let down by the capital’s institutions on crime to the point where the fear of crime itself has been superseded by a resignation that nothing can be done to stop it. As well as a pandemic of shoplifting, there is the abject failure to prosecute attacks against women. London is now rightfully and shamefully infamous for teenage knife crime. We do not see the police enough and when they do arrive we are reminded this is the Met, the most discredited and denuded police force in the land, with more bad apples than a supermarket wheelie-bin.
We have a mayor predisposed to do little with what little power he has. Sadiq Khan is a fine communicator and figurehead, but a risk-averse executive only adds to the sense that London is half-asleep, awaiting an electric charge to jolt it back to full consciousness. The lack of interest of the party running the country in putting forward a plausible candidate for mayor is a continual insult to everyone who lives and votes here.
It’s presumed a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has exposed divisions we had avoided addressing for convenience’s sake until 2023. Double standards over racism, religious intolerance and the legal limits of freedom of expression have been the ugliest spectacles on London’s streets this year. But whatever resentment stirs on the many sides of the many culture wars we can’t seem to quit for even five minutes, history shows London has always been divided against itself, except on those rare occasions when it was forced to unite by necessity.
As we labour through the last rainy day, the answer to “why” must lie in the romance of this place
The capital is too atomised to have the singular identity or sense of belonging enjoyed by cities such as Liverpool or Newcastle, and being a Londoner can mean anything you like or most often nothing at all. Londoners can also be kind and friendly, but only as a last resort. At the end of another year we see familiar exhaustion on the faces of our fellow citizens, knowing that we too must look like worn stone — what William Blake would call, “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”.
As we labour through the last rainy days before Christmas and New Year, often stricken by cold and flu or, if not ill ourselves, accompanied by armies of sneezing and coughing commuters, the answer to “why” must lie in the romance of this place. The horrible vitality of London is what we have in common, reflected in the work of Blake, William Hogarth, Charles Dickens, TS Eliot, Ray Davies, Joan Littlewood, The Clash, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Amy Winehouse and Stormzy. Two thousand years of darkness always comes with the hope that it will end. It’s London’s self-fulfilling prophecy and the source of its combustible energy.
This is what Peter Ackroyd called London’s eternal “state of becoming”: the constant fall and rise of its buildings, its insatiable need for business and trade, the travails of its sports teams, its organic culture and food scenes — and us, its people. The city never seems to reach a destination because London regenerates for the sake of regeneration. Change is its nature.
When it’s dark at 3.30pm and when the skyline is monochrome and nothing ever seems to work, and when Londoners annoy or even fight each other we can at least remember, and take some small comfort if we wish to, that this is how it’s always been. London is the city of darkness. And it just makes the sunshine — when it eventually comes again — feel even more wonderful.
George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s Executive Editor