What We Learned About London in 2014
Class war, a perversely resurgent club scene and burger queues – a year in the life of the greatest city on earth.
London: it's a weird place right now. A sucking wound of a city, a massive black hole in the bottom right of the country that seems hell-bent on inhaling everything within a 200-mile radius into its dark, expensive bowels. It's a city that exists in a permanent state of critical mass, just about avoiding a total implosion by pushing its brokest residents further into the peripheral sprawl and freeing up space for clueless rich people who'll keep the city on life support.
The media, sensing a good human tragedy story, have become obsessed with the narrative of the city, and in many ways it seems that recently the people in charge have started playing up to the panto villain image that's been created for them; shutting down, economically cleansing, bulldozing and redrawing the image of the city at a rate that you have to applaud for its determination, if not its decency.
But among all the luxury developments and estate agents where you can have a Peroni while you seal the deal on a sweet two-bed just off the Lower Clapton Road lies a city that stands at the forefront of world culture. For as New York becomes little more than the set dressing for a Saturday Night Live sketch about hipsters, and Paris continues its admirable mission to create a staid, beautiful dreamworld where it is only ever 2008 or 1898, London retains a young, angry, bitter molten core that often rises to the surface. And 2014 saw perhaps more of this conflict than any year before it.
Here's what we learned about the greatest city on Earth in 2014.
"GENTRIFICATION" IS THE WORD OF THE YEAR
Fuck what the Oxford Dictionary says; the word of the year is not "vape". Nobody calls it that, it's a word that means nothing and is said by nobody. No, the word of the year is surely "gentrification". A term that has groaned out of the Guardian comment pages to become almost completely inescapable; utterly integral to London's narrative, as the battle between natives and developers gets fiercer, and as the stakes become higher for both sides.
It's a phenomenon that can be seen all over the Western world, but it's in London that you see it in perhaps its most vicious, undiluted form. From our "Che in Chelsea boots" vs. the landlords of the New Era estate, to the Deptford Rise project, to Yuppies Out, Woodberry Down and people who eat cheese boards in pubs, London is a battlefield right now. A battlefield where one side wears scarves from Reiss, and the other wears the weight of a city that doesn't want them there any more.
To the victor, the spoils. A safe, vibrant city with more restaurants than an Egon Ronay anthology, a place where you can take your children anywhere, a place where you can get wi-fi in kebab shops. But to the loser, the nightmare. An unaffordable, unmaintainable bastard parent desperate to put an iron ball through your roof and price you out of your very existence. In a way, the conflict only serves to make London more fascinating, more on the edge than it's ever been. But how long can we really stick it out for?
ALL THE CLUBS HAVE BEEN CLOSED DOWN
Alongside the gentrification of housing and lifestyle comes what is perhaps for those beyond London's physical boundaries an even more worrying threat. The gentrification of our nightlife culture; the eradication and sterilisation of establishments that are somehow seen as unviable, or distasteful in Evgeny Lebedev's nu-feudalist vision of London. In hindsight, it's clear to see that 2014 was the year of the long knives for pubs, clubs, gay bars and anywhere that won't sell you a ham and cheese croissant via a man with a funny hat. What happens when arguably the world's most important cultural city starts killing off its culture?
For locals, the results are already there to see. At one point this year, you could have had a night out consisting of a few pints at the Griffin, before heading on to the George Tavern and then the Joiners Arms before landing at a lock-in at one of the many estate or hardman variety pubs that now haunt the city's street corners like pissed ghosts. Or a trip to Madame Jojo's and its neighbour Escape, before heading North to Peoples Club till 8 in the morning. Now, all those places have either closed, or are under threat of closing.
While, on a surface level, it'd be tough to find establishments more diverse than a Shoreditch boozer with vinyl-only DJs, a gay bar that became a fashion crowd speakeasy, a central London indie disco/drag queen hang out and an Afro-Caribbean all-night basement club, there is a common denominator between them. They were places that felt organic, casual, different. Places you could just turn up to and have a great night. Places that didn't involve E-tickets, wristbands or retina scans. They were just "there" and they always had been, which exactly is why they've fallen into the capitalist crosshairs. You worry that, by 2016, all London clubs will look like David Guetta's airport lounge club.
BUT LONDON IS STILL THE HOME OF EXCITING MUSIC
Luckily, the music scene is fighting back against this onslaught, and perversely London has become a more dynamic, playful city at night. The rigid tyranny of deep house and snapback techno, with all their attendant RA message board dust-ups, advance sell-outs and muscle dancers, has started to fade. T he previous glut of DJs and producers who called the city home seem to have headed off into the monied Croatian sunset, banging out their hits to blonde kids in ASOS sunglasses, and a new breed has sprung up to replace them. The vibe is artier, yet nastier; more conceptual, yet more authentic; rowdier, yet more sexualised and camp. More Paradise Garage than new media Christmas party.
From PC Music, to the enduring Night Slugs, to Evian Christ's massive Trance Parties, to sweatbox slamdowns like Endless and Eternal, there is a sense that London is a place where things are happening right now. Everyone is dressed to impress again after dubstep, the DJs don't seem to be blessed with Emerson, Lake and Palmer egos and the punters aren't there to screwface at the slip-ups. The vibe is live, the music is lairy and most importantly people are there to have fun, look good and get fucked in whatever way they desire. I mean, it'll all be gone in a year, but make the most of it while you can, because London's party scene is on a high right now.
RENT IS EXPENSIVE AS FUCK
Boris "Upper Street Noriega" Johnson is not a man who believes that the rate of rent rising in London should be controlled. He believes it should be left in the trustworthy hands of the landlords. Don't mistake him for a man who doesn't care; he cares about lots of things, from the teaching of classics in schools, to buskers' rights – but to impose a system of rent control, he says, would be " devastating".
Which is odd, because that's how every single person who lives in London apart from him feels. This is of course not providing any kind of new insight; sadly, it's just a fact of life in London right now. And in 2014, what we learned was not the fact that it's expensive, but that there is no end in sight to just how expensive it can get. The "less than 500 a month room" has become the "less than 700 a month room" in a year, and as it stands there is literally nothing to stop that other than the vague hope of David Lammy getting in and actually managing to pass the anti-rip-off rent legislation that Boris claims he doesn't even have the right to pass.
THEY'RE TRYING TO PUSH US OUT
But, if you don't like it – and who apart from landlords does? – there are plenty of other options for you. Like Birmingham. Or Berkshire. Places with entirely different identities, accents, neighbourhoods and values; places that are further away than Manchester is from Liverpool, yet are destined to become our new Hitchins and Guilfords as commutability is pushed further and further away from Charing Cross.
As Crossrail errs towards its evil finish line from West to East, crushing the odd nightclub in its path, another operation from North to South kicks up. One that will fuck you off to another part of the country in half an hour, cementing the idea that London is slowly becoming Paris without the all the Haussman charm and strange indifference towards homelessness. We're further becoming a city of concentric circles of wealth, with an inner citadel of money and an endless sprawl of near-poverty; oddly, the exact opposite of the Metroland dream. Suburbs originally designed for middle-class families – Edmonton, Hayes, Thornton Heath – have become all-but ghettoes as Hackney and Peckham overflow with first-time buyers. Why? Because living in a city is cool, and living in the suburbs isn't.
THE CELEBRITIES ARE ALRIGHT, THOUGH
But for all the chaos going on in London, there seems to be one group that will forever be relatively unaffected: the "celebs", those evegreen, ever-up-for-a-party demigods and demagogues who sit at the stop of the ES MagazineMount Olympus, chowing down smoked salmon starters and tequila cocktails at TopShop launch parties, walking round Primrose Hill in expensive leather jackets, laughing at the rest of us for going to places where they don't have ice in the urinals.
They live lives of achievable glamour, lives that make us jealous even though we often end up at the same parties. They get PPQ jeans for free, they have Uber Exec accounts and they do boardroom cocaine. They exist as paragons of a better world that's only just beyond us, sprawled across the pages of our lives, pretending to be lesbians and dropping bags of racket on the same pavements we walk on. The message is simple: they are shit, but we are shitter.
PEOPLE STILL QUEUE FOR BURGERS
Yep, that still happens.
YOU CAN'T GET A FOSTER'S ANYWHERE ANY MORE
2014 was the year when fancy beer finally defeated the humble session lagers at the taps. For years it was just those and a few ales. Ask for a Kronenbourg in most East London pubs these days and you might as well be asking if they've got the fucking Dead Sea Scrolls to browse along with the Observer supplements.
So lucrative have these beers become, that even tax-dodging former coke barons have gotten in on the act, perhaps realising that in terms of the quality:sale price ratio, craft beer might be the one thing that's more of a rip-off than cocaine.
EVERYONE'S ROCKING SPORTSWEAR
Perhaps as a reaction to the legions who seem to think that mid-length beards, slightly too tight chore jackets and Rough Trade tote bags are acceptable things to wear in a European city, many young Londoners have adopted a more wearable, looser silhouetted style. Clubs have had to re-evalue their "no sportswear" policies as Adidas trackies, Nike sliders, Reebok Classics and all sorts of other JJB Classics (as well as more high-fashion offerings from the likes of Cottweiler and the ever-present Nasir Mahzar) have come back into fashion. It's a look that is resolutely urban, clothing that's designed to be worn and lived in, clothes for the club and for the roads, clothes that make sense in a city like London.
IT'S STILL THE MOST EXCITING CITY IN THE WORLD
For all the tragedy and the madness, London remains a vital, fascinating place that's at the apex of modern culture. Most of the interesting things that are happening in the world today are happening in London, and no matter how much the bastards try to co-opt those, it's still hard to fathom living anywhere else for most of its residents. If there's one thing that those who are fighting to remain here prove beyond the power of money, it's that London gets into your bones.
More from VICE: