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Artillery Row

What is happening to London?

The capital is infected with malaise

First class post is taking ten days or more to arrive. Every week there are more stories about people who were stabbed. The police have been driving a van around advising people not to wear expensive watches because they’ll be stolen. Strikes are becoming boringly normal. Trains are delayed by maintenance, missing crew, signal failure, weather, rolling stock failures, you name it. 

This sort of thing takes its toll on a populace

Every time I go into London I see protests. I have recently found myself entangled in the middle of an anti-vaxxer protest on Borough High Street. There were no buses to be had on Picadilly because twenty people — largely looking at their phones — were protesting about Iran. Trafalgar Square was taken over by oil hobbyists a few days later. Every protest is accompanied by many police officers and vans. The twenty people protesting about Iran were accompanied by a dozen police officers and three police vans. Someone ran off covered in an Iranian flag and no fewer than four police officers jogged after him. A band of strikers has been singing outside Lewisham College for about two weeks. 

For a city where crime is on the rise, you never see a police officer unless they are escorting a protest. We don’t lack officers in high-viz jackets or well-stocked vans. We just prefer they escort small groups of anti-vaxxers down Borough High Street rather than prevent people being stabbed. I haven’t yet felt unsafe in London — but in the last few days a teenager was stabbed in Woolwich and a man stabbed on Oxford Street. There have been recent reports of gunfire in Croydon. Knife crime is rising.

This sort of thing takes its toll on a populace. One man in Shoreditch lost his cool with a group of Stop Oil protesters after an hour of delays. We can’t applaud his actions, pulling people around and shouting at them but trying to use London is more irritating than it needs to be. The Dartford crossing was closed for two days thanks to Stop Oil. The man responsible compared himself to the Suffragettes — an apt reference to a criminal movement that did significant damage to their own cause.

It’s as if there is a rust forming at the edges of society. Civil liberties are not concerned with causes: any crank should be allowed to parade their ignorance. But what are we to make of the fact that small groups of people can occupy so many resources and prevent so much other good activity? 

It’s not just crime, strikes and protests. There’s something about the culture of London after covid that’s just slower. Look at the way museums are being bureaucratised. Getting into places that you could once pop in and out of as freely as you like now involves queueing for significant periods. The National Gallery has closed all but one of its entrances — a bizarre decision for a place that insists on remaining free of charge. It has also closed Room A, which used to be a micro-gallery with examples of art from every period. Their art has become a little less accessible.

It’s as if irritating cookie consent pop-ups are occuring irl. “Read more to accept preferences” must cause more unnecessary friction than any other phrase in English. The accumulated effect of this sort of thing is not insignificant. It is similar, but much more serious, every time a police officer is put to work monitoring Twitter rather than patrolling the streets. We are willingly adding sludge to the motions of society. 

How far can we take the right to protest?

Many causes can be found. Inflation brings strikes. Work from home reduces demand for trains. Global crises inflame protests. Public institutions create notoriously sticky bureaucracies. But London is increasingly making decisions to put pauses on life. We are adding redundancy. What possible justification can there be for making it such a pain to visit the National Gallery when two obvious protestors can get in with cans of soup? How far can we take the right to protest — should there be delays on major roads every day for the sake of two dozen people? Stop Oil recently prevented a fire engine getting through. Are the police really unable to do anything about that?

Most of this isn’t so bad in and of itself, but we are making trade-offs that make our lives grimmer. We are prioritising things that are not the experience itself. Covid caution lingers. Trafalgar Square ought to be a place where you can visit national attractions. We are letting it become a noisy spot where small groups of people get in everyone else’s way. For what political end? Something about the pictures of people tipping out cartons of milk in Waitrose as if they were seriously out to change the world sums up the whole problem. If you didn’t know any better, you might think it was performance art.

Much remains that is marvellous. You can freely enjoy the gardens of St Dunstan in the East. The Courtauld is easy enough to get into. The public parks are at their best in this weather. Concerts, lectures and performances take place every night unhindered. There are many good choices for watching a matinee movie. The Thames beach remains incredibly accessible. But there is a little too much malaise creeping into London life. As inflation keeps on going, and the energy crisis starts to take hold, we can expect more and more of this sludge to creep in.

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