A Wounded Metropolis: London in the Age of Terror and Brexit

A Wounded Metropolis: London in the Age of Terror and Brexit

The crap weather, the traffic, the noise, the obscene amounts of money, the horrific rents, the Central Line during rush hour, the greed, the indifference, the Russians in Mayfair, the French in Notting Hill, and the price of a pint has long since risen above six euros: There are, of course, a number of reasons to hate London.

But then the sun peaks through the clouds for a second, the woman sitting across from you in the subway smiles and you are given a ticket for a theater premier -- and all the aggravations are forgotten. In such moments, it becomes clear: There is no better place in the world than this wondrous city. Nowhere is more exciting or more polite, nowhere else gives you more, despite terror, despite Brexit and despite the constant chaos.

London is justifiably proud of its coolness, which is regularly put to the test, most recently on Wednesday. An attacker sped into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and tried to force his way into parliament. Along with the shock and the grief, however, the metropolis exhibited the stubborn equanimity that can only be developed in a city that has become used to crises, attacks and turmoil over the course of decades.

London is good at absorbing shocks. The question is whether it will remain so. Because here, in the heart of the globalized West, the withdrawal from the European Union will be orchestrated and carried out in the coming months and years, a lunatic exercise in isolation. The city is doing what it can to courageously resist English parochialism, but ultimately, a country will emerge that is less open and less interconnected with the world around it -- and that stands in direct contradiction to London's disposition.

Around a dozen English-language newspapers are published here every day, trade routes and capital flows converge in the city, it is home to exiles and oligarchs, oil sheikhs and refugees, business leaders and the carefree. London breathes the world, London is the world. That which is said, written, developed and designed here boggles the mind of anyone attempting to grasp the city.

A Laboratory for the Age of Migration

London is the epicenter of globalization, larger, hungrier and more powerful than any other Western European city. No place in the Western hemisphere has profited to a greater degree from immigration, free markets and the unhindered flow of capital, from openness, internationalism and ideas from elsewhere. Eight-and-a-half million people from all across the world live here together more-or-less peacefully and contentedly, and in general, they profit from it. London is a laboratory for the age of migration, a foreign object hovering over England.

That, though, is why separating from the European Union will be so appalling for this city. Next Wednesday, the government intends to start the Brexit process by triggering Article 50. And Prime Minister Theresa May has left no doubt that she is unconcerned about suffocating the capital. The majority of voters in London, 60 percent, voted against Brexit. For them, it is unimaginable to cut off connections with the Continent in the vague hope that, in 10 years perhaps, a trade deal with South Korea might prove beneficial. The result has been a creeping fear in London of becoming smaller, less cosmopolitan and less important -- of becoming poor like Berlin, rigid like Paris or inconsequential like Rome. The fear of no longer being a metropolis, of being just another city in England.

Kings lie buried here, rebels and capitalists, and the city's sense of humor is on full display at the grave of Karl Marx in Islington, where visitors must pay a four-pound entrance fee. The city does nothing in moderation, which makes it so seductive. It has no tolerance for indolence, which makes it so enticing. It is not the city to move to in the search for quietude. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," wrote the author Samuel Johnson in 1777.

To become a true Londoner, all it takes is a quintessential tipsy afternoon in a pub with a couple of friends and a television broadcasting the Chelsea-Arsenal match. Then you know all you need to know about the city, life and all the rest. That, at least, is how it was for a long time.

Beset with Anxiety

These days, Brexit even creeps into bar chatter. The tone is one of lament and it is impossible to blame capital-dwellers for that either. The pound has become weaker since the referendum and coffee, mobile phones and Ibiza vacations have all become more expensive. European nurses are quitting and entire companies are planning on leaving the country.

London small talk has become beset with anxiety, no matter who you speak with: architects, bankers, writers and normal citizens. There are many pessimists who see the British capital stuck in a downward spiral. But there are still those who remain confident, people who say that London has always been flexible and that stagnancy is not an option for the city. Stagnancy means boredom and boredom would mean the city's demise.

In his grand biography of the city, historian Peter Ackroyd describes London as a living being, half stone and half flesh. "It is curious … that this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion," he writes. The city will adapt, even to a hard, messy Brexit if it must.

The city is chaotic, and it helps to look at it from a fresh perspective -- through the eyes of a recently arrived newcomer. Alessandra Muin was 22 when she came, a lively young woman from a northern Italian backwater. She wanted to learn English and find adventure, she wanted to leave provinciality behind and become a part of the world. She initially intended to stay for just a few months but had no concrete plan.

She flew in just before Christmas. "Two weeks later, I had a job," she says, folding sweaters and shirts at the Oxford Circus Benetton. It wasn't the most fulfilling job in the world, but it was a start. She wandered agape through the city streets and partied with new friends and acquaintances in the evenings. And she saw a million opportunities. "I fell in love with this city," she says.

'A Frame of Mind'

That was 14 years ago and London hasn't let her go since. Today, she is no longer folding shirts, rather she cooks tasty treats from back home and sells them to foodies. Muin is one of tens of thousands of people who wash up here every year and somehow never leave. Because of the opportunities that present themselves, because of the freedom, because of the people, who are all looking for something: money, happiness, excitement -- for life and meaning.

Those who move to London want to prove to themselves that they can survive here. Every newcomer immediately senses that this maze of streets and empire monuments, palaces and council housing, is more than just bricks and cement. "London is a state of mind," says Mayor Sadiq Khan, and he sounds like he means it. The referendum is like a thorn in the city's side and Khan knows that he needs to find a way to meliorate the anger of its residents. But how?

A career like Khan's would be unthinkable elsewhere and his life essentially tells the story of this city as a magnet to those looking for a chance. Nowhere else would such a climb raise fewer eyebrows. The son of a Pakistani bus driver becoming a lawyer and then mayor, the first Muslim leader of a European metropolis: What's the big deal?

"For over a thousand years, this city has been open to trade, people and ideas," Khan says. "We must not allow that to change."

Like the majority of his constituents, Khan voted against Brexit on June 23, 2016, and, like all politicians who did the same, he finds himself in a dilemma. He is among the referendum's losers, but he must do all he can to protect citizens, companies and banks from the negative consequences of leaving the EU. He wants to link London closely with Europe, using special work visas if it comes to that. He can't stop Brexit, but he can slow it down. And it's not just about London. "When London flourishes, the country flourishes," Khan says. "If London is doing poorly, the country suffers."

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