Since I began my project, ten weeks ago, to cycle the whole of London by bike, armed only with a camera, I have managed to become quite familiar with the whole of south east London, Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, and the banks of the Thames — on the north from London Bridge to the Royal Docks, and on the south from Blackfriars Bridge to Thamesmead, as well as travelling to Stratford — in search of the Olympics — and back, and in this latest set, taken a few weeks ago on a bike ride into central London from south east London — to be followed imminently by a rainy set of photos from the City of London — I found some parts of south east London I had never found before — in Nunhead (in the London Borough of Lewisham) and Peckham, Walworth and Borough (in the London Borough of Southwark), and some that were familiar, which I came across in a largely unplanned manner.
The parts of London I have covered in the last ten weeks are, I concede, only a fraction of this vast metropolis, but the dozens of journeys I have undertaken have made me fit, and have stretched my eyes and my mind, which had become cooped up after six years of researching and writing about Guantánamo and the “war on terror,” and after the 21 months that I have spent railing against the cruelty and myopia of the Tory-led coalition government, which, through an obsession with destroying the state and privatising whatever was not already privatised by Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, has initiated a savage and deluded age of austerity.
This is driving the economy into a death spiral, while maintaining the bubble of super-wealth that grew out of the financial deregulation of Thatcher and Reagan, and then of Clinton and Blair, which, in turn, crashed the global economy through its insatiable greed in 2008. Since then, rescued by taxpayers, this monster has continued behaving as before, addicted to its own amoral criminal enterprises, and manifesting a growing obsession with property as a replacement for all other meaningful economic activity.
On my journeys along the river, I have seen, repeatedly, the effects of this remorseless property bubble, which politicians and regulators are also desperate to preserve, to avoid a reality check that, objectively, is desperately needed to restore sanity to the cost and value of bricks and mortar everywhere in London — in the terraced Victorian houses which ordinary workers can no longer afford, as well as in the shiny towers of glass and steel — and the converted wharves and warehouses and the endless speculative new builds that cover every riverfront, every canalside, and every other space unoccupied long enough to be rebranded as desirable.
However, on my journeys through the back streets, through the world inhabited by real Londoners — the 60, 70, 80, 90 percent who don’t have access to the self-generating crooked fortunes of the City and elsewhere — I have been catching glimpses of the new era of grinding poverty that is growing and spreading like a slow cancer, and I have been confronted, time and again, by neighbourhoods being gutted through gentrification, with prices rising beyond the means not only of ordinary workers but of professional couples, as has never happened before.
With demand outstripping supply — as a result of an effective 30-year freeze on social housing projects — the unregulated private rental sector continues to grow, attracting foreign speculators, who join homegrown landlords establishing property portfolios, and even individuals — those with a single spare property as an investment — are caught up in a frenzy of cranking prices up, squeezing the pool of those unable to afford to buy with ever higher rents until they have less and less to spend on anything else than servicing their landlords, and all other economic activity dwindles.
Logically, this cannot end well, but for now it is as if only the first cracks are appearing, and only those watching closely can see them. Perhaps this new world will limp on, so the rich can continue to fulfil their unwarranted sense of entitlement, while those exploited to achieve it work longer and longer hours just to keep a roof over their heads, and those in the lowest paid jobs — or those unfortunate enough to be unemployed — are shuffled to the margins, shoved from slum to slum with no one watching.
I doubt, however, that it is sustainable.
In the meantime, though, this is what a journey from Brockley to Blackfriars looks like, with eyes wide open.
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, Flickr (my photos) 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.
When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:
If you like, come with me on a photographic bike ride from my home in south east London to central London, via some interesting corners of Nunhead, Peckham, Walworth and Borough – odd corners, apartment blocks, derelict buildings, you know the score. You’re most welcome.
Allison Lee-Clay wrote:
I wish I could!
Well, you know, Allison, metaphorically you can …
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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