In the eyes of Britain’s heritage industry, London is the traditional home of empire, monarchy and power, an urban wonderland for the privileged, where the vast majority of Londoners feature only to applaud in the background.
Yet, for nearly 2000 years, the city has been a breeding ground for radical ideas, home to thinkers, heretics and rebels from John Wycliffe to Karl Marx. It has been the site of sometimes violent clashes that changed the course of history: the Levellers’ doomed struggle for liberty in the aftermath of the Civil War; the silk weavers, match girls and dockers who crusaded for workers’ rights; and the Battle of Cable Street, where East Enders took on Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts.
A People’s History of London journeys to a city of pamphleteers, agitators, exiles and revolutionaries, where millions of people have struggled in obscurity to secure a better future.
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“The end of the history of culture manifests itself in two opposing forms: the project of culture’s self-transcendence within total history, and its preservation as a dead object for spectacular contemplation. The first tendency has linked its fate to social critique, the second to the defense of class power.” - Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
There was much to analyse in the Olympics opening ceremony, and many questions raised (the most obvious being ‘has someone spiked my drink?’). But the element that has drawn most debate has been the celebration of the NHS – a bizarre sequence of dancing nurses, children’s nightmares and a looming Lord Voldemort seen off by a squadron of Mary Poppinses.
It was instantly hailed by many on the left as a grand subversive gesture, one in the eye for Cameron and Boris and the rest, and a call to arms to defend the NHS.
At Lenin’s Tomb, Richard Seymour poured scorn on the spectacle as a rallying cry against the cuts:
Amid the general Sunday morning hangover, I hope those on the soft left who threw aside their probity for a saturnalian flag-fest are now in the mood to confess and repent. Lawks, Mary Poppins saving the NHS from Voldemort to the tune of Branson's money-spinner Tubular Bells! Let the Tories dare privatise the NHS now! (They're already doing it. They'll still be doing it on Monday. The fine nurses and doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital danced in vain if this was supposed obstruct this determined class assault.).
But how genuinely subversive was the ceremony anyway? It may have had the Daily Mail and right-wing MPs and pundits frothing, but its content was obviously LOCOG-approved, and while Tory MP Aidan Burley called it “leftist crap”, it also had Boris Johnson crying “hot tears of patriotic pride”. Even the Nazi-impersonating MP Burley had to qualify his comments with “we all love the NHS”.
Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague — Marc Perelman
Perelman’s book takes a subversive look at sport and global sporting events such as the Olympics to reveal their darker side. He argues that sport has become an instrument of political control and a vehicle for capitalist monoculture. This timely polemic offers refreshing reading to those looking for an antidote to this summer’s Olympian frenzy.
Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism — Stephen Graham
This authoritative study examines the rapid and dangerous spread and normalization of surveillance and state policing in western cities and warzones alike under the guise of national security. As such it provides an unsettling and provocative insight into the global backdrop of the rising costs and militarization of London’s Olympic Games security operation.
A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain— Owen Hatherley
Hatherley’s critical tour of Britain’s urban centres incorporates the latest and most high profile attempt at regeneration offering a carefully considered indictment of the architectural and social failures of Stratford’s Olympic sites.
An edited extract from A People's History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees
The London of the twenty-first century is reproducing the conditions that gave rise to radical and socialist ideas in the past. Glittering skyscrapers are transforming the London horizon more quickly than ever before. The city is moving east again, creating a huge pool of poverty bordered by wealth in the City, Canary Wharf and the new Olympic development in Stratford. But this is only the most visible form of the inequality that is growing across the metropolis.
As the 2012 Olympics open, motorcades of dignitaries, politicians, company CEOs and celebrities will sweep through East London on the specially cleared executive super-highway to Stratford that is only open to them. A few yards away, in damp and overcrowded blocks of flats, Black, white, and Asian workers will be preparing to go to work, if they are lucky, in jobs that pay a pittance. Perhaps they will be serving coffee to, or clearing up after, those very same people. For centuries in London such contrasting conditions have produced riots and radicalism, strikes and socialism. That history is unlikely to be over.