China Mieville's London: the (authentic) city and the (banks and surveillance) city

Writing in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, China Mieville blazingly describes two Londons: an exuberant, organic place that has been lived and built over and remade, bursting with energy and vitality; and a fearful, banker-driven collection of megaprojects and guard labour, where billions of pounds can be found to surround the Olympics with snipers and legions of police, but nothing can be found for the library on the corner, where the center of town is being purged of anyone but the super-rich, and where rioting has nothing to do with stop-and-search powers and poverty, and is the result of mere "pure criminality."

The Olympics are slated to cost taxpayers $14.7 billion. In this time of “austerity,” youth clubs and libraries are being shut down as expendable fripperies; this expenditure, though, is not negotiable. The uprisen young of London, participants in extraordinary riots that shook the country last summer, do the math. “Because you want to host the Olympics, yeah,” one participant told researchers, “so your country can look better and be there, we should suffer.”

This is a city where buoyed-up audiences yell advice to young boxers in Bethnal Green’s York Hall, where tidal crowds of football fans commune in raucous rude chants, where fans adopt local heroes to receive Olympic cheers. It’s not sport that troubles those troubled by the city’s priorities.

Mike Marqusee, writer and activist, has been an East London local and a sports fan for decades. American by birth, he nonetheless not only understands and loves cricket, of all things, but even wrote a book about it. He’s excited to see the track and field when it arrives up the road from him in July. Still, he was, and remains, opposed to the coming of the Olympics. “For the reasons that’ve all been confirmed,” he says. “These mega-events in general are bad for the communities where they take place, they do not provide long-term employment, they are very exploitative of the area.”

Stratford sightseers are funneled into prescribed walkways; going off-piste is vigorously discouraged. The “access routes,” the enormous structures are neurotically planned and policed. For the area to be other than a charnel ground of Ozymandian skeletons in 30 years, it will have to develop like a living thing. That means beyond the planners’, beyond any, preparations.

‘Oh, London, You Drama Queen’ (via Making Light)


  1. Londoners as the exploited. Things have changed in 100 years.

    Or maybe not. Ramanujan was surprised to see white servants when he visited in the ~1910s.

  2. Giving today’s ‘troubled youth’ libraries won’t do a thing. If they had any use for such a thing, they’d use the internet – which has the added advantage of being free of censorship. They won’t go to youth clubs. We’ve reached the point where the apathetic “generation raised by television” has raised children of their own.  Children have arrived either by accident or as a way to get more benefit money. Since the parents are busy watching television, and since society tells them it’s immoral to discipline their children in any meaningful way, this tends to mean ignoring them as much as possible. And marriage or family mean nothing to them, so the parents split up and recombine at whim. If the kids ask for an 18-rated movie or game, they get it – it’s easier than arguing with them.

    So the kids grow wild.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that many of Mieville’s comments aren’t relevant. The Olympics is an obscene waste of money – look what they did to the Greek economy.

    1. My generation (mostly) is far more polite and politically atuned than my father’s. If this is growing wild I say cast more fertilizer to the roses.

      1. Perhaps I’m just thinking of the bit your ‘mostly’ excludes, then… but that’s a big enough chunk to give society some real problems, especially since they tend to appear in clumps.

        1. I’m trying to think back to the time when England wasn’t having some kind of moral panic about The Young. I’m only 41, though, so I’m having trouble. Do any older readers have suggestions?

    2. I live on one of the estates which provided its fair share of the rioters and I can assure you that they do want safe youth clubs free from the intimidation of gangs. You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers (or online for that matter). You sound as if you think the people you criticise are unable truly to analyse their position and act by some sort of feral instinct. Your commentary sounds like the voice over to a wildlife documentary.

      1. The comment on youth clubs was made by a police officer I spoke to. They set up a club, no-one showed up.

        1. Perhaps because it was set up by the police? 

          I’m joking.  The grammatical structure of your comment begged for it… On hands and knees. Kinda like protesters in the same position are begging to be pepper sprayed.

          1. Why joking? Why would youth want to go to something set up by an armed, hostile organization known for surveillance and entrapment?

        2. Replying to Antinous (which for some reason isn’t an option) – yes, the way the police are perceived is a major issue. The problem is that due to a lack of resources, excessive bureaucracy and limits on their powers, the police aren’t able to deal with the little things effectively – so there’s a groundswell of petty criminality that’s left to fester. Only when the riot has started do their rules suddenly change – so they suddenly go from invisible to oppressive. If they were able to do their jobs properly, we’d never have had a riot to begin with.

    3. That sounds a lot like a WWII-era parental concern – my grandparents worried about the young rioters and rebels of the boomer generation. But they went ahead and paid the taxes necessary to build libraries and social clubs and schools for their boomer kids, because they were outnumbered and scared of them. Punishment, they thought, would only make their angry kids angrier and the riots more violent.

      I think today’s adults need to be more scared of youth, but since the numbers aren’t in favour of the young, the things kids do must be much more shocking to get any attention. And when their crimes are noticed, teens get punished as a group with invasive security measures, absurd zero-tolerance policies and misdirected attacks in the media that obscure the underlying issues. Meanwhile the government is trying to “balance the books” by cutting back on youth programs, cutting back on the social programs their parents enjoyed, and driving down wages to compete with Chinese slave labourers. It’s really no mystery why so many kids have given up on society.

  3. A lot of the Olympics funding is coming from the National Lottery. That can be tapped for things that provide “a lasting legacy”. It will pay for buildings, such as libraries, but the not the day to day costs (such as librarians).
    As for funnelling people, if you’ve ever been to Stratford, you’d know you’d never want to go “off-piste” if you could avoid it. The bits done up by the Olympics should last, and hopefully will drag up the rest of the area. 
    The UK hosted the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, and East Manchester wasn’t left as an Ozymandian skeleton. Also, London will be hosting the World Athletics Championship in 2017, so the Olympic park will host another event in 5 years time.

    1. For this amount of money, “hoping” that it will improve an area without having much of an idea how is pretty weak sauce.

      1. The Olympic park area definitely has improved. Where there was once Clays Lane and a travellers’ caravan park, there’s now the stadium itself. I meant it’s yet to be seen if the surrounding areas such as Leyton and East Ham will also improve. The jury is still out on whether the media start-up hub/dotcom incubator quarter will grow once the Olympics are over. 

        £3.1bn has been spent on site construction and £1.7bn on  regeneration and infrastructure. I think about £2bn will go on hosting the games themselves.

          1. Yes displaced to a better place. Clays Lane was hardly Shangri-La. Also poor people to be placed in the new housing, post Olympics.

          2. replying to twissistw whatever but the site wont let me

            clays lane was hardly shangri la?  but the  430 people who lived there didnt want to move and what evidence that they went to a better place? a private rented slumlord house share for twice the rent or a hard to let high rise bedsit in customhouse?

            poor people to be placed in the new housing post olympics? havent you heard the olympic village  and development sites have been sold off to qatari diar who are not in business to provide social housing 

            looks like only about 10% of the proposed new housing on the site will now be ” affordable ” which these days means anything up to 80%  of market rents and recognised as being far from affordable for most

  4. China Mieville should get on his motorcycle and think a bit more about Quality. I take it that in his Marxist version of the Church of Reason he’s going to opt to ‘refuse to enter the arena’. What an olympian dilemma for someone profoundly interested in games. I do not want to replace the chaotic and bloody world around me with China Mieville’s ‘rule of law’.

    1. Very pseud. But have you considered using all those pretentious phrases to say something with actual meaning?

      1. Sorry, I can’t put it any other way. The article is bitter and weighted unevenly. I grew up in London and I just can’t take this kind of stuff. Thanks for helping me to identify two of my best traits. 

    1. Seriously,  11 comments (at time of your writing) is a flame war? Nobody’s even invoked Hitler yet!

      (Besides, that kazoo was asking for it…)

      1. I was referring to the NY Times comments. At least half of them were mentioning how Mr. Mieville is socialist trash. Hitler playing a kazoo at the Olympics’ opening ceremonies would indeed be bad for Mother England’s image.

  5. Lovely bit of writing, me old China. 

    But-re: the  strap-line on this piece, I always get uneasy when one side in an argument brands the other as “inauthentic”. Banksters are authentic too – not just an authentic bunch of Tristrams (rhyming slang rules apply here, for our transatlantic friends: Google the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent central and work backwards)  – but also an authentic expression of the cunning, adaptivity and rapaciousness that have historically made London the great unfair beast of a city that it so horrifyingly and exhilaratingly is. Discriminating by branding/belittling/monstering your enemies as ‘inauthentic” has the tiniest echo of the jackboot about it, and reminds one that fascism, for all that we now see it as a phenomenon of the Right, actually sprang – via its syndicalist roots – from the Left.

    OK. Now I’ve comprehensively chained the butterfly, I’m off for my deliciously multicultural London Sunday lunch…

    1. You nailed it. I like China Mieville’s politics more than I like his writing (although I love Kraken), but “authentic” is an entirely meaningless term, or rather, it has the trivial meaning of “something I like”.

  6. The amount of money spent in the Beijing Olympics could’ve provided low income housing for nearly indigent or migrant laborer in the city. However, the global neoliberal elite has very little use for that, but would rather loot public coffers for their own vanity projects. Check out the collection of essays in “Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism” for more examples of how vanity projects like the Olympics screw the little guy while making him feel proud of it.

    1. The amount of money spent in the Beijing Olympics could’ve provided low income housing for nearly indigent or migrant laborer in the city.

      It provided lots of jobs. For people from the countryside who were left unemployed, homeless and stranded when it was done. Short-term humans for short-term gain.

  7. An excellent essay – penned by a true lover of London – that steadfastly refuses to present a whitewashed image of that great city. What I find most disappointing – though not terribly surprising – here, is the reactionary nature of the comments, so many of which seem only to reaffirm Miéville’s observations.

  8. In reply to ” tw1515tw

    The Olympic park area definitely has improved. Where there was once Clays Lane and a travellers’ caravan park, there’s now the stadium itself.”

    The travellers still need somewhere to live

    Clays Lane was a succesful housing co-op the hundreds of people who live there have been dispersed along with the community as thier homes were destroyed

    Manor Gardens allotments which was a thriving site with over 1oo plots growing food since the 19th century has been bulldozed

    Far more  long term jobs have been lost from the area by displacing industry which employed local people than have been created by the olympics which has 80% employed people from outside of the locality and the majority of these being of limited duration ie gone once the games are over

    so far a big public purse payout to benefit big private corporate profit

    1. I agree the travellers and the Clays Lane residents need to be rehoused/relocated, but if you’re going to improve an area, it’s not always possible to do that by leaving everyone in situ. 

      Clays Lane was no idyll. The co-op got 0 stars from its Audit Commission inspection – the lowest mark possible. Also, a lot of Clays Lane was student (transient) accommodation.

      The allotments probably could have stayed. I think they have been given land elsewhere, which is something. I’m pretty sure the businesses that were displaced were given the option of a brand new building 1/2 mile to 1 mile from where they were before.

      1. No idyll maybe but the 430 people who lived there didnt want to move and clays lane was a far better quality and affordable option  than the private slumlord housing most single people including students get

        transient? 70% had been there longer than two years  30% more than five years pretty stable for an inner london community and it was a community a housing cooperative people who had chosen to live together now dispersed and lost
        you “think the allotments have been given land elsewhere?” but a 100 year old community was destroyed and lost some people had worked thier plots for generations with all the accumulated work  and history lost

        You are “pretty sure the business were given the option of a brand new building” half a mile to a mile away? reeally? Think again 

        all worth it though to improve the aarreeaa? not an improvement for the people who lived worked and played there oh yes on that what about the loss of local sports facilities? and now the seizing of lammas land green space for a basketball training facility? are you paid to regurgitate this stuff? probably not as you just “think so”  cos of course it cant be a corporate landgrab to benefit a few corporations and property developers at public expense can it?

  9. Aw what do I care about London anyway. Its mostly just the richest of the global elite anyway, let them have their party or else burn in a riot, it’s no business of mine. What I really like about this story is Mieville’s prose, specifically THIS PARAGRAPH

    “Her thoughtful honesty is refreshing. Mostly what we get in London is unending rah-rah from official channels. At the London Policy Conference, a high-powered talking shop in December for urbanologists, politicians and academics in the Brutalist concrete art zone of London’s Southbank Center, Mayor Boris Johnson chortlingly describes those skeptical of the Games as “the gloomadon poppers!” Johnson is crush-heckled: someone in the audience bleats that we all love him. The mayor is a ninja of bumptiousness, a man with a genius for working rooms full of the easily pleased. “The many gloomsters!” he beams, still on Olympic theme.”

  10. I disagree with most that he says.  I’ve lived in london on next to nothing and managed to reasonably succeed.  I know people who entered the country with £10 in their pocket and are now millionaires.  The common thread is that it takes graft, something many people have somehow forgotten.
    As an aside is it only me that finds his writing style very hard to read.  I didn’t get on with his books for the same reason.  I will have to try them again as the reviews were very good.

    1. not the old i made it someone i know made it from rags to riches everyone can do it we can all be millionaires the poor are just lazy  hard work is all it takes its their own  fault  if they cant be bothered line ?

      1. Is working for a living such a difficult concept? 

        Strange how everyone I meet working in shops and bars is a recent immigrant.
        Strange how when you talk to them they are all doing other training or gaining extra qualifications.
        Strange how you wish them well as they move on to the next better job.

        Their story is exactly the same way it happened for all of my generation, right in the middle of the last recession.

        1. I think the problem today is with the startling and growing disparity of how much work different people have to do, for how much living.

          One cannot expect modern societies to function well and avoid discontent with gross inequality of opportunity. Of course, it is not that inequality of opportunity has historically been much better, but (with less media) it tended to be less obvious, and there was still the belief that some people were just born to be the betters of others.

  11. I thought the article was total balls, every Londoner knows London is a grabby stabby place to be, as its a city.

    All cities are full of people on the collective make, if not its what we would call a village.

    I’m from New Cross, its vibrant and quite shooty.

  12. And then Greg Lougainis showed up, talked about how everyone trades these great pins, and China Mieville and the girl from Sleater Kinney were all like, “Olympics in Portland!” I mean “Olympics in London!”

Comments are closed.