Even Dr Johnson would tire of modern London, where bigwigs welcome global scumbags and nobody else matters
To be tired of London is to be tired of life, ran the famous declaration of Dr Johnson, who was denied the thrill of participating in an election that would anoint either Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone the figurehead of his beloved city. Forgive the posing of a weary question I asked the last time this same banquet of choice was spread before the capital’s populace, but if London is The Greatest City In The World, how come it’s between Boris and Ken? Two more diversely ghastly individuals you could scarcely hope to find – yet each insists London is TGCITW, as do assorted luminaries of the capital’s dysfunctional police force, Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, and any number of bigwigs who should receive a sustained electric shock every time they utter the cliche.
For it is in reading the pronouncements of another London doctor this week that the truest picture of modern London’s attributes emerges. Dr Fawaz Akhras is not a doctor of letters, like Dr Johnson, but marks himself out as one of the capital’s most exciting polymaths by the manner in which he apparently combines offering repulsively morally relativist advice to his son-in-law, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, with his career as a Harley Street cardiologist. Do join me in a theatrical shrug and a muttered “Only in London!”
“Why did the UN Human Rights Council not meet [to discuss Libyan civilian deaths] and are now so concerned about the Syrians’ deaths?” wonders our heartless heart surgeon – though I hasten to clarify that I do not mean to impugn his professional reputation as a mender of that most romanticised of human organs. After all, one of London’s other charms is its status as the libel capital of the world, with it costing on average 140 times more to fight a libel action in London than it does in mainland Europe.
But I think I may avoid an appearance before m’lud for the mere observation that there is an intriguing Venn diagram intersection between doctors and people connected in some way to acts of violence. Middle East-wise, there was the Jordanian paediatrician-turned-al-Qaida-triple-agent, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaida CEO who also got his start in child medicine. (Again, let’s not cast aspersions on al-Zawahiri’s clinical competence – I have no reason to believe he was anything other than excellent, ending each consultation by presenting his little patients with a lolly and a sticker reading “I’VE BEEN BRAVE TODAY”.) And there’s Assad himself, who obtained his ophthalmology degree in London. Naturally.
Say what you will about TGCITW, there really is no place better for watching the gilded parade of international yuckery go by. In the past there was a sense that to get eyeballs on some of the real nasties, one had to travel overseas. But these days Londoners can just sit back and wait, safe in the knowledge that almost every global scumbag, or someone intimately connected to them, will pitch up in the capital sooner or later and find it quite the most accommodating place to spend time.
We’ve had so many delights through the doors that it becomes impossible to recall them all, but the most recent goldrush started back in 1998, when cuddly former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet skulked into London and gifted it the chance to perform his back surgery. Since then, the city has drawn the presence and property investment of innumerable international oligarchs, attached to many of whose names are whispered stories of how they preferred to dispatch their enemies, or gaily told tales of how they siphoned off somewhere or other’s mineral wealth.
But London has cause to feel particularly proud of the thrusting generation of moderates whom the capital shaped in various well-endowed institutions and at soirees held in their honour at the highest level of metropolitan society, before sending them off into the Middle East to work their magic. Think of Saif Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad and his wife – perhaps Vanity Fair, which last insisted London was swinging in 1997, could return to do a sarcastic “Class of” feature on the capital’s most eye-catching governance alumni.
It took root under Thatcher but it was Blairism that presided over the capital’s transition into full-blown creep haven – inevitable, given Tony’s pathological admiration for the super-rich. The result is that it is now standard to note that there are two Londons: the one where all but a few thousand of the city’s millions live, and the one where, when yet another Mayfair restaurant opens selling £70 steaks, the black Range Rovered clientele cannot get a table for weeks on end.
From the outside, the one increasingly eclipses the other. And thus, if I might make a pitch for inclusion in Pseuds’ Corner, London is contracting as an idea. Where previously outsiders could get a sense of the richness of the city’s culture, it is now increasingly difficult to get a sense of much else than London’s richness – while for insiders, the sense of exclusion from that richness becomes more pronounced. The greatest city in the world does not care to accommodate its key workers within a one-hour, overpriced commute of their jobs, but plays enduringly attentive host to some of the most grotesque horrors of the age.
from Marina Hyde