Image: Brijesh Patel
September 24 2011
I was a little miffed to hear that Newsweek has stuck the boot into London, following the riots that rocked the capital of empire over the summer. I suppose I ought to state an interest. I used to write the occasional article for Newsweek, but since taking over, Tina Brown has made a point of not asking me back, so you could say that I am looking for things to criticise. That said, I do find attacks on the reputation of London – except of course when they are made by Londoners – distressing. It is without doubt the greatest city on earth, and Johnson’s famous dictum is as true today as it was in 234 years ago in September 1777.
Of course, the riots were shocking and frightening, their impact compounded by a complacent government that did not react sufficiently rapidly to stop the loss of life and property; but it is not the first time that the city has succumbed to mob rule. Three years after Johnson said that when a man tired of London he tired of life, the Gordon Riots ripped through the capital, and in the early 19th century the mob was at it again, rampaging in protest at the Corn Importation Bill. What is surprising is the sanguine attitude of some Londoners back then. “We are rioting away here about the Corn Bill, breaking windows and battering in doors every night,” wrote one society lady blithely. “If it were not that it must come to shooting a few and hanging a few it would be merely laughable, and, as it is, I can only consider it as an ebullition from that best political constitution that the world has ever seen and which proves it is yet hale at the heart.” And Lord Castlereagh, who calmly watched as the unruly crowd broke his windows, was heard by the diarist Gronow to observe that “the mob, is not so dangerous as you think.” However, at least the government then took decisive steps and sent in the army.
Perhaps back then, as the broken glass littered the streets of the West End, some shrill voices in our former colony would have crowed about the collapse of Britain and the descent of its capital into barbarism; however, they would have been mistaken. The year in which those disturbances happened was 1815, and a couple of months later a certain British duke dealt rather decisively with a certain troublesome French emperor at the Battle of Waterloo.
The reassuring thing is that this Newsweek article joins a long tradition of overseas journalism that fails to understand the nuances of life in London. I remember once hearing about a photograph taken in London that appeared in a Russian newspaper towards the end of the Cold War.
At the time I well recall that Sally Clarke’s eponymous traiteur/baker/delicatessen at the top of Kensington Church Street was le dernier cri, especially on a Saturday morning. It has to be remembered that this was London pre-supermarket ciabatta when olive bread was a novelty and a line of smartly-dressed people would snake along the pavement outside the shop as they waited to buy their gourmet loaves, savoury flans and other rustic-type treats. Anyway, it may be apocryphal, but apparently some Russian editor pounced on a picture of Clarke’s on a weekend morning, running it with the headline: “Bread queues in London” – true, perhaps, but hardly accurate.