It is the near future, spring in the year twenty-something-teen. A few people might still know what the exact date is, but most of us have stopped counting. What's the point? That dry and selfish business of numbers slowly getting bigger feels uncomfortable now; it reminds us of something else; it reminds of us what we did. London looks almost normal – if you'd just woken up from a very long sleep, you might hardly notice that anything had changed.
A cold and hazy sun still rises, and the pavements are clean; we can still remember how to sweep. The grand old buildings have only collapsed on the interior, and the rustle of pigeons among the wreckage could almost be confused for buzzing human activity. Half-finished skyscrapers flake gently in the wind. But something is clearly wrong. People limp through the streets like they've been wandering a desert, dragging themselves in circles around some impossible goal. There are stories of faithful dogs that will wait patiently by the door of a master already long dead: these people – still putting on their suits, still opening their shops, still miming out a diminished version of something that hasn't existed for years – are the same. All silence, and in the distance a lonely wail. Somewhere out of sight, someone is turning his mouth to the empty sky and screaming. 'What am I for? What do I do? What am I for?'
How did we get here? How did we get everything so wrong? It all seemed so simple, back in 2016, back when the years still had meaning, the year the billionaires left. It seemed so innocuous: a new government rule requiring international owners of UK property to add their names to a public register, an anti-corruption drive to prevent illicit funds being laundered through the London property market – who could be against that?
We were warned; all the super-prime estate agents gave stern interviews, chiding us that the country's 50-odd billionaires, who have a right to a private life just like anyone else, might decide to move somewhere else. And we thought: so what? What have they ever done for us? When the first of them left hardly anybody noticed – private planes slipped out over the sea at dusk, the penthouses were sold without any need for a sign out front, there was nothing to distract us from music and sex and the internet and everything else that fell away with them. And so before anyone had any time to think about what might happen, they were all gone.
We were ungrateful. We were cruel. These people just wanted to live among us, in peace and happiness. They wanted to give us money, and they were happy to take in return nothing but a few political favours, some only mildly degrading sexual acts, and most of central London. Maybe they were avoiding taxes; maybe they were funnelling drug money through the financial system; maybe they didn't seem to really do anything except live off other people's work and run the whole of society for their own benefit – at least society was running. We should have been overjoyed that these vast and beautiful creatures, modern gods that could hold the whole world in their hands, should choose our damp little island to make their home. Instead they were despised. When the last of them left, there were squat parties up and down Billionaire's Row. We smashed all the windows, so they'd never come back. The bass resonated through all those underground saunas and squash pitches, and blasted out into the air; it felt like the earth itself was cracking open. Finally we were free.
The plan was to fight corruption, but we had been corrupted ourselves. Before the billionaires left, the economy of London was almost entirely dominated by finance and property – in other words, the entire city was one vast concierge service for the ultra-rich. There were those that served the oligarchs directly: the construction workers that raised their speculative investments, the service workers that brought them their meals, the sex workers that soothed their anxieties at the end of the day. There were those workers that helped reproduce the labour of these first-order servants from behind the tills at fast food outlets and behind the desks of tube stations. There were cops that keep their streets clear and technicians that kept their water flowing. As it spread out from the centre of the city this operation becomes ever more abstracted, but every little life, no matter how independent it thought it might be, belonged to them. Britain had found a place for itself in the world economy: a nation of millions, spit-shined and willing, would tend to the needs of a few very rich people. And then they left.
Before the oligarchs abandoned the city. By Chris Bethell
First the property prices crashed. Millions of people, used to the close walls and the smell of their own hot breath in their six-bed flats, the rusted four-ring hobs, the landlord's sudden gaze, found themselves moving effortlessly into airy rooms with river views. The epidemic levels of anxiety trembled to a halt, the government found itself suddenly burdened with a conscience. But something felt wrong. All the people who sold gold-plated bathroom fixtures were out of a job; the limousine-driving industry collapsed overnight; caviar importers had fishy mountains of surplus stock and nobody willing to buy it. Walking past one of London's Michelin-starred restaurants, we started to feel a strange hollowness in our chests: there was no longer that thrill of envy, we could no longer imagine what refined and incredible things must be going on inside. Everyone had already been; the food was fine. With the billionaires gone, there was nobody to tell us what to do. So much time had been spent patiently doing their work that when they abandoned us, we couldn't even imagine what our lives might actually be for.
In the end, most of Britain gave up hope. There are strange cults now, people who've convinced themselves that by making champagne bottles out of clumped grass, or scrawling property ads in the mud with a stick, we can induce the ultra-rich to come back. Other people say we're overblowing the whole thing. They have family up in Manchester, they insist, and it's actually quite nice there, they just opened a new arts centre. I'm not so sure, I think nothing remains. In the summer, a hot wind blows into London from what used to be the Home Counties, and the air is thick with red dust.
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