It’s “Frantic Friday” in London, the final day of Christmas shopping before people leave the city and head home. Shops have been packed, pubs are overflowing and no one seems to be working – well, save for the poor folks manning the tills. The streets are fuller than ever in a city that compares unfavorably to Shanghai, and it’s good to develop a thick skin and a sharp shoulder if you want to get through the packs.
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Despite the lights, the trees and the clusters of tourists with sacks of presents, the mood here is grim. I’ve been going back and forth to London for nearly 40 years and I have never felt a tension like this. It feels as if many people here are playing a massive game of musical chairs, and everyone is either waiting for the music to stop, or they have just given up and are drinking in the corner.
The austerity measures the government has enacted on dubious grounds are only part of the story. London is a major financial hub and it is clear that the contagion in Europe, America’s housing woes, and the pressures of the weather and season are combining and conspiring for a foul mood. The Tottenham riots — and the underlying causes — are still in the public mind. Walking around Mayfair, it is hard not to feel that the historic class divisions are wider than ever; and walking through Tottenham last night, it was equally difficult not to feel some of the rage that drove that population to rip up their own homes and shops.
People have often criticized the English for what is perceived to be innate rudeness. To be frank, they are less popular than Americans worldwide, and not at all loved elsewhere on the Isles. I’ve never had an issue — some of my best friends are from England, and I love visiting the country. Despite my being a Scottish-American, in years past I’ve never had much flack aside from the odd shopkeeper trying to weasel out of taking a Scottish pound on false grounds.
This time the mood is so different that I am both shocked and embarrassed.
There is an almost feral mood here, going beyond the typical cackling over the foibles of footballers and the famous to a real nastiness. This is not the nation that I wanted to show the camerawoman accompanying me. It is, in some aspects, quite terrifying. It makes me wonder if the British press – which has done quite a good job criticizing other people – might want to spend some time focusing on themselves.
What else is fascinating is how front and center football has become here. If the old Roman adage about bread and circuses is true, then the press is busy shoveling and feeding it. On a day when bombs went off in Iraq, killing scores, the front pages featured football games – on nearly every “reputable” paper. I obviously love the sport, but there’s a disconnect here. Is news about Luis Suarez and John Terry really more newsworthy than the situation in North Korea? Apparently, here it is.
Of course, that press is busy being ripped apart. The Guardian is losing 90 jobs by New Year’s. The Daily Mirror, at least 60 and probably closer to 100. The Times just let go their chief football writer and will make further contractions. The less said about the cuts at the BBC the better. How panicked is this corps? Enough so that no fewer than 10 people have asked me if things are any better in America.
My mum often says that we live “in interesting times.” (I wonder if she knows that’s an old Chinese curse, used by Neville Chamberlain.) They certainly are, but not for the right reasons.
For the good people of London, I hope it doesn’t get any more interesting than it is today.