While Tyrants Sleep: Canary Wharf at Night, a set on Flickr.
On November 14, 2012, as I explained in my previous photo set, “Curious Insomnia: A Journey through Deptford and Millwall to Canary Wharf at Night,” I decided, at 1am, to cycle from my home in Brockley, in south east London, down through Deptford and Greenwich, and through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to the Isle of Dogs, where I cycled through Millwall, via the former docks and South Quay Plaza (and the DLR station) to Canary Wharf, the multi-towered financial centre and underground shopping complex that has been sucking the lifeblood out of the rest of London since it overcame its early wobbles under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and became a magnet for dodgy unregulated bankers and obsessive materialists during the reign of Tony Blair.
It is, in fact, a place which, as Owen Hatherley explained in an excellent article for the Guardian last year (which I also drew on here), is responsible for “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.”
Hatherley also explained that, as new housing was built — most spectacularly under New Labour, as at Pan Peninsula, discussed here — 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.”
As Hatherley also pointed out, it was under New Labour, when most of its skyscrapers were built, that it “became something yet more malevolent.” He added, “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.”
Those of you who know me, and who follow my work, know that I am fascinated by Canary Wharf, and have some sort of appalled admiration for some of its architecture and for the scope of its ambition. Mostly, however, I am just appalled, full stop, by the grotesque displays of wealth made visible in these towers that celebrate the unfettered greed and materialism that has come to define modern life.
What alarms me is that, although the bankers crashed the global economy in 2008 and had to be bailed out by us, the taxpayers, apparently on the basis that, if you’re a big enough criminal, you’re “too big to fail” — the super-rich, though slightly winded for a while, bounced back and are now relentlessly flaunting their ill-gotten gains once more.
I have always found this kind of behaviour sickening, and its rationale non-existent, because there is, genuinely, much, much more to life than money and materialism and status — although if you have to ask me what it is then you’ve missed the point! Moreover, it particularly stinks since the bubble of collective greed burst in 2008, and we ended up with malignant political leaders intent on using it as an excuse to destroy the foundations of civil society and the state provision of services by attacking the poor, the ill, the old, the young, the unemployed and the disabled, and encouraging people not to look at the crimes of the tax evaders and their political facilitators, but, instead, to blame those who had nothing to do with it.
In this world — in which there is no longer a moral compass and all that counts is greed, materialism, self-absorption and the endless protestations of entitlement by the rich, the aspirational and the ambitious — Canary Wharf is the perfect example of a dystopian future that has already come to pass.
Essentially, Canary Wharf, with its jostling phallic towers and its seemingly endless interconnected underground shopping malls, is a city within a city; a gated city, if you like, as the whole of the Canary Wharf Estate is regarded as private land, patrolled by private security guards who look like police but aren’t, from which anyone can be excluded on a whim — and from which even Google’s Street View was prohibited.
So this, my 85th London photo set, records my journey into the heart of Canary Wharf at night, when, it transpired, there is almost no one around. My desire to visit came as a response to a visit a week before, in which I had been hassled by security guards in a handful of locations (photos to follow soon). At 2am, however, those employed on the night shift are considerably more relaxed, and there are very few people around, just a few lowly servants of the self-described “masters of the universe,” cleaning and moving things around.
I didn’t want to push my luck, so I kept the snooping to a minimum, and resisted the desire to photograph the entrances to underground car parks, but I did capture some photos that I’m very pleased with, of the bankers’ palaces at night — plus, to bring me back to earth, a few photos from Deptford High Street at 3am, just before my strange night journey came to an end.
I hope you enjoy the photos as much as I enjoyed taking them, and I hope to see you soon for more photos of my wanderings around London by night and by day.
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, 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.
On Facebook, Christopher John Webster wrote:
the rebel insomniac cycling photographer strikes again….
Thanks, Chris. I like that description!
andy you have got to watch the film …they live…its on youtube it sums it all up..years ago i worked for a props and display company and every year we would make the decoration for hairy wart thats wot we called the place this was in the late 90s..we all agreed that the poeple who worked there were very ..odd…when you looked closer you could see they had no nostrils,lol they blinked sideways like lizards [and the windsors]lol..very strange creepy people,lol,lol we were in the service areas behinde the shops and you could see hairy wart was built out of the cheapest materials going..that sums the place up,lol
Brilliant description of the lizard people of Canary Wharf, Damo! Regarding the film you mentioned, do you have a YouTube link?
just type in 1980s sifi film they live,theres only one or google it .enjoy,lol
Thanks, Damo. Found it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC1orZf5mtE
I’m amazed that I never heard of it before. I’ll try and watch it soon.
watch it andy you,ll love it
Will do, Damo!
Amazing photographs. Living in North London I rarely go anywhere near Canary Wharf, but when I do I’m struck (fascinated and repelled, as you say) by how dystopic it feels. Riding the DLR on the Lewisham line through the complex itself, it feels like a mini-Taiwan, architecturally, but also in a social/political sense; you can really feel that it is a place inhabited by people who would rather that the minimum wage didn’t exist, that the state should not exist except as a repressive/administrative force, and that human relations should be reduced to monetary value. Fascinating, scary place.
Great description, Alex. Thanks. Very good to hear from you.
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