“London’s despicable skyline”

Are skyscrapers symbols of modernity or playgrounds for rich investors? British writer Will Self talks about walking in London and how international capital has completely changed his home city

an interview with Will Self

July 2022

As a writer you’re very linked to London, which features for example in “The Book of Dave,” about a taxi driver, as well as in your writing on psychogeography. What is it about the city that inspires you?

I long thought of London as my muse but I’ve reevaluated that recently. I’m still very interested in my little quartier right by the Oval, in the south of the city, chatting to people I know and walking these streets. It’s more or less a majority Black area, with a many people of African, African and Caribbean heritage. I enjoy this neighbourhood, it offers a kind of micro-psychogeography. But partly as I age - and also as I travel more often to Paris - I see that the London I knew it is often not there anymore.

What's changed?

The most important change is the unlivability of the city. There has been class cleansing going on for 25 years. When I moved here in the mid 90s, there were still local businesses, like stonemasons and upholsters: I witnessed the tail end of another era. They’ve all gone now. These days, most people are priced out of central London. The city has become stand-ardised, infused with flight capital.

And the transformed cityscape, with its crop of skyscrapers, reflects that?

Yes, there’s the Cheese Grater, the Wodge, the Gherkin, all of those iconic buildings that have shot up in recent decades and years. Though of course, in reality, they’re not really iconic, they’re a kind of unification of structure and logo: the branding a of skyline. They are like enclaves that have altered the character of the city. The fact is, London never was a high rise city. The first tall building of the post-war era only came in the mid sixties. It came as the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s personal gift to Conrad Hilton: The Hilton Hotel on Park Lane which, alongside the Millbank Tower and Centre Point, were the only really tall buildings in central London. I met Irvine Sellar, the developer of The Shard, a few years ago. He had an office on 60th floor of the building and he swept an arm across his extraordinary view of the city and said: "You see, it’s all flight capital and we can’t get enough of it". In other words, in London there’s this impression of living in a regime that is built on the insecurity of other regimes. Regimes that can rely on not being investigated here. It really is a despicable skyline in that way.

And London has famously been the stomping ground of oligarchs for years. Has this changed with the Ukraine War? 

The old oligarchs’ hangouts have pretty much gone. We’ve seen a sort of skimming off of the cream on top of the city. People have long denied London’s significance as a safe haven for flight capital but its impact has been huge. For example, the London property market, where so oligarch money chases limited housing stock. So yes, the oligarchs are less pre-sent right now but there are plenty of other sources of flight capital which Britain remains quite relaxed about courting. London still offers a relaxed environment for all sorts of overseas investors who are not as clean as they might be.

Is there a growing gap between everyday London communities and these international capital streams?

Yes, and that shows up in the language. With contemporary developments in London, the flats are always called “luxury”; and another buzzword is “placemaking”, which is ironic of course, given what they’re really doing is “place destroying”: they are eradicating what was there before. Eventually they will succeed in making a new place, linking it into the broader city, but that process will take decades. For now these luxury developments have sort of been beamed down like somebody from Star Trek.

From your perspective as a walker, how do you feel about the “despicable skyline”?

I have an ambivalent relationship to the megastructures. In some ways I quite like them: they provide a constant parallax. They help you orientate yourself in the city. They are also sort of sublime, they’re great objects and also terrible, in the sense of Edmund Burke, (the 18th century philosopher’s,) definition of the sublime. Particularly because they embody so many resources and given the climate emergency, these giant buildings remind us of our wayward consumption. And on a very basic level, they change the how the streets feel. It’s now constantly windy in the centre of the city because of the negative convection currents that sweep down the sides of these buildings. And the structures are so massive: The Shard is the highest building in Europe. The Wodge is almost as tall as it and is way bigger - and now there’s another one going up right next to it.

Does your walking link in with your writing process, or are they just two parallel interests that you have?

If you walk long distances, at the end of the day your walk spools back behind your eyes. You go back over your experience and the body kind of senses the topography. You’re holding the terrain you covered in the somatic memory of the body. I think writing novels is a bit like that. There is a narrative line is like the line of a walk. And there is an environment in the book, furnished by descriptive prose. Because of the way I work - I usually know the whole book by heart when I’ve finished it - its it’s analogous to finishing a long walk. You have the whole book in your mind and you rewind back through it. In itself, walking is very good for creative thinking with (Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques) Rousseau’s Reverie’s of a Solitary Walker or William Wordsworth who composed his poetry on foot. The physical act of walking suits the rhythm of prose.

Have you felt the impact of Brexit in London?

Yes, in the sense that you can sense you don’t hear as many Polish people or Europeans in general talking on the streets these days. Generally, Britain was engrafted with Europe in all sorts of little ways and you can now feel it all being pulled apart. At the same time, in the newspapers, in the media, in a myriad of little ways, there’s a clear turning away from Europe. There is an insularity about our editorial commentary: The underlying message is that Britain is acting in its own right - there’s no longer any that kind of necessary triangulation with France and Germany. But the pandemic, the Ukraine War and the rolling crisis of Boris Johnson’s premiership are completely eclipsing the real impact of Brexit. But I don’t think people have taken on board all its consequences, even though some six years have passed since the vote. The whole business of Northern Ireland, for example, is still completely unresolved. There have been so many bad news days to hide what’s really happening. And they’re continuing.

Did the Covid-19 pandemic change your experience of the cityscape?

I walked obsessively through those months: If I knew the city before, I know it much better now. From a walking and a psycho geographic point of view, the pandemic was just great. It was like time travel: During the first lockdown I heard a Nightingale sing in Kennington Lane which is normally an incredibly busy arterial road. There was suddenly very little car traffic. It made me realise how in the city your eyes are continually tracking vehicles and how it makes you think instantly all the time. Walter Benjamin has a very good passage about this. He describes the city as a series of continual shocks. But during the pandemic that sensation simply stopped overnight.


Interview by Jess Smee


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