Black Box: ‘London shall be all in flames’
China Miéville’s London’s Overthrow uncovers a capital on the brink of meltdown, writes Rory Olcayto
In last year’s spectacular Tate Britain show, John Martin: Apocalypse (AJ 13.10.11), one drawing in particular caught novelist China Miéville’s attention. London’s Overthrow, by Jonathan Martin, the Victorian painter’s mentally ill brother. It was drawn while Jonathan was locked up in Bedlam for setting fire to York Minster. It shows London - dressed up as ancient Ninevah - on fire, overlooked by a giant lion, with sad, mad eyes. Scribbled below it reads: ‘London shall be all in flames’.
It would inspire Miéville’s new book, titled after Jonathan’s ‘pen and ink scrawl’, which sees the former Socialist Alliance candidate for Regent’s Park and Kensington North embark on a 76-page lucid dream-trek through the capital’s streets with the Bedlamite’s vision imprinted on his mind. ‘The lion,’ writes Miéville, ‘looks out from its apocalypse at the scrag-end of 2011. London, buffeted by economic catastrophe, vastly reconfigured by a sporting jamboree of militarised corporate banality, jostling with social unrest, still reeling from riots. Apocalypse is less a cliché than a truism. This place is pre-something.’ Miéville’s London is a city where 37 per cent of children live in poverty, where the richest 10 per cent hold two-thirds of all wealth, where unemployment is approaching half a million and a quarter of young citizens are out of work.
Miéville’s journey, originally made for the New York Times, which published a shorter version of it in March, takes us to squats in New Cross, St Paul’s tent city, the Olympic Park, riot-damaged Tottenham, the Elephant & Castle’s Heygate Estate and the City of London’s skyscrapers. It is a powerful survey of what social theorist Paul Gilroy calls ‘the ground zero of a failed neoliberal experiment’. It covers similar ground to Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, but is more succinct, more controlled, better edited.
As with most celebrated science fiction authors (he is three-time winner of the Arthur C Clarke award) Miéville knows better than most what today looks and feels like. His vision is hypnotic, convincing, on it. An iPhone snap is ‘a lit-up memory of now’, the O2 Dome a ‘blister-memento of London’s pathetic millennium’, shopping precincts are ‘pedestrian brandscapes’ and Kapoor and Balmond’s Orbit a ‘snarled Gaian hernia’. Miéville understands polemics can be tiring and these gems are welcome finds in a relentlessly depressing text.
There are frightening observations on the changing townscape. As council tenants who for years had rented in richer parts of London are forced to take on cheaper homes in outer boroughs, Miéville warns of the city’s ‘banlieuefication’. And he cites Westminster Council’s mooted ‘civil contract’, which would oblige unemployed residents to perform unpaid community work: proof that the concept of housing as a right is under attack from those who think it should be a privilege.
He’s sharp, too, on architectural matters. Blair and Cameron’s Neoliberalism has brought about the ‘banalisation of space’. The empty Heygate Estate is a ‘ruin on a Martin scale’. London’s ‘growing fake public space abjures the backstreet-and-alleyway gestalt of the city’. And he asks of the then-unfinished Shard, as it ‘soars above London accumulating glass as if it’s in solution, growing crystals’, if it ‘can over time, submit, surrender, become part the city’.
And, following the riots of last August, when whole districts of London were set aflame - and with Jonathan Martin’s sad image in mind - Miéville reasonably asks: ‘Who’s mad now?’