The Power of Greed: Photos of Canary Wharf, a set on Flickr.
I have long had a horror of the unfettered greed signified by the creation, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, of Canary Wharf, even though, initially, this “enterprise zone,” dropped onto Millwall and Poplar, on the Isle of Dogs, like a hostile takeover, seemed destined to fail. When the docks closed in 1980 — and were moved to Tilbury — Thatcher’s government established the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981 and made the Isle of Dogs an enterprise Zone status the year after. In 1988, Olympia and York, a Canadian company, began the construction work that resulted in the opening of the first buildings, including One Canada Square, the pyramid-topped tower that remains the most iconic building on site.
Ironically, the orgy of financial liberalisation that led to the creation of Canary Wharf had already crashed by the time it opened. Olympia and York went bankrupt in 1992, and it was not until 1995 that a new consortium bought Canary Wharf, soon after becoming the Canary Wharf Group.
In a further demonstration of irony, it was not until New Labour assumed office in 1997 that the newly-revived Canary Wharf really took off, as the author and journalist Owen Hatherley explained in an excellent article for the Guardian in May, entitled, “The myth that Canary Wharf did east London any good.”
Drawing on claims that Canary Wharf was set to overtake the City as London’s financial centre, Hatherley noted that it “wouldn’t be altogether surprising if some saw this as a cause for celebration,” adding that “Canary Wharf, and the 1980s Docklands development of which it was the most successful part, was an enterprise zone, an idea that the current government is trying to revive.”
Enterprise zones, of course, were presented as places where business would be free to operate without unnecessary government interference — in the matter of taxes, for example — although as Hatherley noted, its creation nevertheless needed “massive public investment projects such as the Docklands Light Railway” and “the cleaning, dredging and decontaminating of the old industrial sites.”
With 150,000 jobs in financial services, replacing the 80,000 jobs lost through the demise of the docks, Canary Wharf is touted as a success story, the pre-eminent symbol, if you will, of Britain’s miraculous transformation from the old world of the industrial revolution to a new miracle world powered by financial services.
As Hatherley notes, however, the reality is rather different. As he states, “Canary Wharf has been for the last 20 years the most spectacular expression of London’s transformation into a city with levels of inequality that previous generations liked to think they’d fought a war to eliminate.”
As he proceeded to explain, “few of the new jobs went to those who had lost their jobs when the Port of London followed the containers to Tilbury; those that did were the most menial — cleaners, baristas, prostitutes.” Moreover, as new housing was built — most spectacularly under New Labour — it “was without exception speculatively built,” and the inflated prices in Canary Wharf “soon forced up rents and mortgages in the surrounding areas,” becoming “a major cause of London’s current acute housing crisis.”
Hatherley followed up by noting how, although Thatcherites “liked to think their race-to-the-bottom policies on wages and unions might rejuvenate British industry,” the reality is that old money and old power monstrously renewed themselves in Canary Wharf, a place where “old money got computers, built itself glass skyscrapers, hid its old-school ties and transformed itself into a gigantic offshore money-making mechanism” — and where what Hatherley calls the “ludicrous nonsense of ‘trickle-down economics’” is exposed “more than anywhere else in Europe.”
After noting Canary Wharf’s false start in the early 1990s, and how, for years, what was known as ‘Thatcher’s cock’ — One Canada Square — “stood tumescent but alone,” Hatherley concluded, powerfully:
It was really New Labour that was intensely relaxed about the place, with most of the skyscrapers dating from the 2000s, the years in which it became something yet more malevolent. In a piece published at the start of the financial crisis, the late political essayist Peter Gowan called it “Wall Street’s Guantánamo“, the place where the likes of Lehman Brothers could escape the relative rigours of US law and fully indulge in the fictitious capital of credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations. There are few places on earth so completely and utterly implicated in our current discontents, or anywhere so due a serious reckoning. Somehow, rioters missed it last August, the barrier of the arterial road that severs it from Poplar perhaps seeming impassable. Maybe they’ll reach it next time.
Last week, after skirting the edges of Canary Wharf on several of my recent bike rides (see here, here and here), as part of my new and ongoing project to travel the whole of London by bike, and to take photographs of everything that appeals to me — or, it should be said, that also appals me — I decided it was time to travel to the heart of the beast, especially with the Libor exchange rate scandal having just taken down Barclays’ monstrously greedy CEO Bob Diamond, and with the possibility that, after government paralysis in 2008, when bankers crashed the global economy, and then got bailed out for doing also, this time around the pressure might build to recognize that investment bankers — and the financial mechanisms they have built up and wooed politicians with — are in fact criminal enterprises, and formerly respectable banks are now no better than — and no different from — the Mafia or other criminal organizations. With that recognition, prosecutions can follow, and the economy-wrecking, business-killing bankers can be dragged back down to earth, to be tamed and made to operate within the law, or within what should be the law.
Amongst the shiny skyscrapers that, from the beginning, have seemed to me to be a perfect example of how fascist regimes, or those who aspire to fascism, construct their buildings on an excessively larger-than-human scale, I found that I was drawn not just to the geometry of these imposing structures, but to the contrast between the glass and steel and the clouds that even bankers cannot capture, and the water that no one can truly tame, the odd hint that all is not well with the masters of the universe’s model of infinite, ever-expanding greed, entitlement and personal gratification, and the surreal green space of Jubilee Park, a space that looks like a park but is actually a roof garden, constructed over the Jubilee line and a shopping mall beneath.
At Heron Quays, where I took a final shot of the crowds of power-dressed men and women outside Canary Wharf DLR station, I then cycled off swiftly as two policemen began walking my way, heading off along the Lea Valley up to another contentious area, the Olympic Park at Stratford. I’ll be posting photos from that journey soon, but in the meantime I hope you enjoy my trip to the shining towers that hide a dark heart.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
i allways found cannery wart to be a hiddious place cold and mean just like the people there
Yes, I agree, Damo. Gives me the chills.
On Facebook, Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Really good article and photos, Andy.
Thank you, Dejanka. That’s very much appreciated.
Sharing it, Neil Mckenna wrote:
Great initial article on canary Wharf with some great links both to the Guardian and Andy’s own photo and commentary journey through and around London. ‘Enterprise Zone’. Yeah … like Sicily …
Barbara Carroll wrote:
Interesting and informative, and I also enjoyed a mini visual vacation
I’m glad to hear that, Barbara.
its funny looking at canary wort seeing were its all gone,the unstoppable rise of the banks and corperate global greed ..the new god…money ,power its allways been like that but not with such intencity as right now destroying everything and everyone in its path..there is a hole in the hearts of man so deep it can never be filled they will never have enuff..price nadula
You are right, Damo. Analysis indicates that countries with the smallest gap between the rich and the poor and high taxes guaranteeing the provision of necessary services for all – e.g. Scandinavian countries – are those where people are happiest. Here the replacement of all values with the relentless quest for riches is almost Biblical in the lessons it ought to provide – but the greedy aren’t listening. They hear only the sound of money. A sign of how twisted our world has become is that faceless people, producing nothing of worth justify being able to pay themselves £1 million a year – to give just one example of how far the madness has gone. One million pounds in one year – the amount that an average worker in the rest of the economy will work their whole lives to earn. It’s a true scandal.
we have become sick with greed,it is never ever enough they will never have enough money ,as we all know money is power and they want power so badly your right about scandinavian countrys they have got it right a good healthy society,so clean ,so classy,people seem happy, healthy, content..this country is a squalid cesspit run by crooks and shysters every politition both left and right over the last 45 years has done nothing but steal from this country and its people and now were in a situation were the banks rule us ..how did that happen i see the government is giveing the banks 80 billion to lend to small bussiness ..did they not learn a thing,lol
Sick with greed just about sums it up, Damo. It buzzes in the air here in London – how much are you making? how much is it worth? how much did you buy it for? how much did you sell it for? how much did you make?
An entire culture based on knowing the price of everything, but not its value …
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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