Hobson’s choice

Our poll cards for the May elections came in the post last week.

Because we live in Newham, in addition to the mayoral elections, we have a referendum on how the council should be run. The current Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, campaigned on allowing this referendum to take place—after ousting Sir Robin Wales, who had run Newham Council into the ground for the best part of twenty years. For some reason, some local residents who are way too obsessed car parking are treating this as a referendum on car parking. I am still not sure how I shall vote in this referendum, but it is hard when people muddy the waters as to what you’re actually voting for.

In any case, most eyes will be on the London Mayoral and Assembly elections. These will likely be the last ones where people can cast a first- and second-preference vote. The (Conservative) national Government plans to turn these into first-past-the-post votes, effectively securing a Labour/Conservative ping pong for ever more. (The pretext provided by Priti Patel for this, by the way, claiming that “transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum,” is a lie.)

This is unlikely to make a difference in the foreseeable future. Sadiq Khan, the present Mayor, remains very popular (unusual for a Labour politician.) The Conservatives’ candidate for this election, Shaun Bailey, is appallingly bad and his campaign has resorted to sending letters warning of tax rises using fake ‘CITY HALL’ insignia, the kind of underhand tactics usually reserved for scamming elderly people out of their life savings.

We also have an alarming number of extremely bad independent candidates this time around: honourable mentions for the UKIP candidate whose name is literally ‘Doctor’ Peter Gammons; David Kurten, whose platform is to remove all cycle lanes and allow people to be harrassed on the street outside abortion clinics; and Brian Rose, an ex-banker who now runs a YouTube channel on which he platforms David Icke, who believes the royal family are lizards. We also have Laurence Fox, a failed actor who accuses gay men of being paedophiles and freely admits to having been radicalised by ‘anti-woke’ videos on YouTube.

It’s easy (and correct) to laugh at these awful people, some of whom probably genuinely believe they could be the next mayor of London, but really this is being used as a front in a culture war. Realistically, the people of London will choose Sadiq Khan for their next mayor, probably by a landslide. I expect I’ll be casting my first preference vote for Siân Berry of the Green Party, because although she has no hope of getting in, someone needs to speak up about some of Khan’s less sensible policies, viz. the Silvertown Tunnel. But that aside: Sadiq Khan is one of only a few credible candidates, and the only candidate full stop with the numbers to win.

So it’s obvious that, when serial liar Boris Johnson uses the national COVID briefing to lie that Sadiq Khan is responsible for TfL’s dismal finances (as opposed to the loss of the operating grant from central Government and COVID-19 causing fares income to dry up) he is doing this to play to a national audience. I would not be surprised to see it as a pretext for a power grab. The Greater London Council was abolished under Margaret Thatcher—something similar could easily happen again.

I fully expect to see Londoners punished after 6th May for voting for the wrong people. I expect higher fares on public transport. I expect a hike in council tax. I expect more cuts to vital services. Mercifully I don’t expect things like the wholesale removal of cycle lanes (one of Boris Johnson’s rare good points is that he’s pro-cycling and pro-cycling infrastructure, although that’s in large thanks down to him having a journalist who writes misleading anti-transgender articles for newspapers as an adviser)—or rather, I don’t expect things like this yet. If Boris Johnson were to be replaced by, for instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or Priti Patel, or Michael Gove, I fully expect to see more of London ripped up to appease Jeremy Clarkson wannabes for whom driving a car is a personality type.

It’s often said that we should be glad to live in a democracy where we get choices like this (usually by the kind of people who say ‘yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent.’) And it’s true that we do get a choice, although I don’t like treating this as a privilege rather than something that should be a basic right for everyone, everywhere. But it does rub me the wrong way that there appears to be so little choice—and when there is more than just a binary choice between two ancient political parties, neither of whom appear to have your best interests at heart, the machinery of national politics is willing to snatch even that away.

Inspecting my own little role in the consent manufacturing machine

Sometime between 2012 and 2013, I wrote a short story called Random Access. This was a Black Mirror-a-like drama in which a person attached to an EEG could ‘re-live’ their memories, rendered in a video game.

The other day, I removed the story from public view on this web site. It won’t be coming back in its current form. This is why.

The ‘frame’ story I used featured a veteran of the Iraq War who was wounded in action, trying to find out what happened to his comrade (and illicit lover) who went missing during a firefight that left a civilian family dead.

The story was heavily influenced by various pieces of media I was consuming at the time, including (as mentioned) Black Mirror, along with Forbrydelsen/The Killing II, and the video game Spec Ops: The Line. This is, in essence, the problem. Particularly with the latter two of these, while I enjoyed them at the time and interpreted them as ‘anti-war’ narratives, they are only truly ‘anti-war’ in that they say ‘sometimes soldiers feel sad and do bad things.’ The narratives still centre white, Western, culturally Christian voices, all the time using a real-world situation where Western countries have invaded and destabilised sovereign nations as a backdrop. The fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan takes a back seat.

This is still a problem in 2021. Even my favourite film from last year, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s and Greg Rucka’s The Old Guard, while ‘sceptical’ in some sense of the US military, never follows through to openly challenge the military-industrial complex and the machine of imperialism. Nile, the audience insert character, is a Marine in Afghanistan. We’re encouraged to empathise with Nile because she shot a military target she was supposed to capture (who then slashed her throat with his dying breath); we’re never invited to empathise with any Afghan characters, none of whom I believe even have names. While you can never expect a piece of media to be ideologically ‘pure,’ this just left a particularly bad taste in my mouth given how many other commendable things The Old Guard does.

The recentdiscourse about Six Days in Fallujah, a video game in such shockingly bad taste that it was cancelled in 2009 but still somehow got made, made me think back to that little story I wrote in 2012 again. While I often cringe at things I wrote in the past, using the Iraq War as a backstory for a sci-fi ‘love story’ (after a fashion) between two (implied white) American men—one of whom is implied to have committed a war crime, in the context of an entire war that was likely illegal and lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents—seems a bit wrong.

I’m not going to pretend that people read Random Access in any great number (I’ve seen the hit counts, they haven’t) nor that this is likely to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. But I think it’s important to recognise when you’ve made yourself complicit in part of a wider pattern of oppression and violence—no matter how little, and no matter how unintentionally.

Must it be like this?

I had a breakdown on my bike today. I was out recording cycle routes for people going to the Nightingale Hospital for their COVID shot (this one a route from Barking) and got a puncture for my trouble.

As I stopped and seethed on the waterfront of Royal Albert Dock, prying the nail from my front tyre, I realised that, while this was probably somewhere I’d been before, this was the first time I was taking the environment in properly. The architecture varied from ‘surprisingly interesting’ to ‘unexciting but inoffensive.’ What really surprised me was exactly how quiet it was.

Angled shot of a row of vaguely cylindrical residential buildings on a paved dockside stretching into the distance, with the skyline of London in the distance.

Far away from any major roads (not my usual experience of the Docklands, and certainly not true of the route I’d taken from Barking) all I could hear was the sound of the occasional DLR train, the footsteps and freewheels of passing walkers, runners, and cyclists, and the gentle wash of the (still) water.

What was conspicuously absent, once I realised where I was, was the sound of aeroplanes. Because this was just across the dock from where London City Airport is.

This will probably get my ‘environmentalist’ card confiscated: I have used City Airport several times in the past. I never liked it much. The promise of the promotional video from the 90s (i.e. businesswoman who probably voted for Thatcher four times and has classical music following her around as she hops into a taxi to sign a business deal in Fleet Street) always seemed a bit far-fetched for the 2010s. It’s true there’s less distance to walk. There are also exactly the same problems with bus transfers (particularly when they shove you from a just-arrived flight into a bus to drive you the few hundred metres from one end of the terminal to the other, because the public can’t be trusted to walk along the edge of an active airport terminal), overpriced food, a duty-free maze, the security-mandated striptease, the way airlines seem incapable of not letting down passengers who use wheelchairs… I could go on.

But quite aside from any of this—arguably an inherent problem with air travel, and part of why I don’t fly any more unless I can possibly avoid it—there’s another beef I have with City Airport, that I didn’t truly understand until I was in a meeting at Beckton Community Centre a couple of years ago. I’d ridden there in the pouring rain with a friend in the dark, and the ride there was enjoyable—and yet, as we settled down to business, still soaking wet, we kept getting distracted by the sound of jet engines.

Beckton Community Centre, and indeed the entirety of Beckton, is within spitting distance of the airport, to the point where even inside modern buildings, the sound of jet engines is unavoidable. I dread to think what it’s like if you live in an older building, or in one of the new developments overlooking the dock. I’m sure the new houses have good insulation, but even that won’t be able to block out everything.

I’ve lived in noisy places before, of course. When I lived in Canning Town, I could occasionally hear jet engines throttling up (presumably from City Airport, although maybe I was actually hearing something else.) When I lived in Mile End, I had the noise from the Great Eastern Main Line to deal with. (Rail tamping machines are loud.)

And yet—standing on Royal Albert Dock today, infuriated that I’d not brought a pump with me, I recognised that the place I stood in was probably a great place to live. Good quality modern housing. Nice views towards central London. Regular DLR trains to London, with a station every few hundred metres or so. Traffic-free waterfront. A well-stocked university library.

But would I live here with an airport operating for most of the day? Even accounting for the fact that the airport no longer proposes to extend its opening hours, the regular sound of jet engines would drive me up the wall.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact we’re currently at the tail end (we hope) of the third lockdown, Royal Albert Dock is peaceful on a Saturday afternoon. As we come out of the pandemic, there’s space for us to ask what purpose London City Airport still serves in 2021.

London City Airport externalises most of its environmental costs onto Newham, one of the most deprived London boroughs and one of the worst affected by COVID-19. Its raison d’être is to funnel Important Business People from taxis, limosuines, and DLR trains into narrow-bodied jets to destinations that should be mostly reachable by train. Although it now also serves people going on weekend breaks and ski trips (again pursuits restricted to those who can afford it) I’m becoming increasingly convinced that, in 2021, this is a relic from the bygone world before ubiquitous mobile phones, reliable conference calls, and reliable trains to Heathrow.

I do have to wonder if those campaigning vociferously against the HS2 railway line, complaining it will destroy ancient woodland and lead to an increase in carbon emissions, have the same energy to campaign to close an airport that seems to pander to the whims and irritations of the richest of the rich while externalising the cost onto everyone else.

Having had first-hand experience, it almost seems like a cargo cult. I’ve been out of Heathrow quicker than I’ve been out of City. While flying on a jet without ‘middle seats’ may be nicer than flying in the middle seat, not flying at all is generally nicer than both of these things. I always find the process of flying and passing through an airport extremely stressful, even out of City, while even the most stressful Eurostar experience has been glacial by comparison. When it comes to domestic travel, there is no competition. True, you may save an hour or two by flying—but why should someone living in council housing in Beckton have their air quality knackered and have their window shake on its frames for the sake of someone saving an hour or two on a journey between London and Aberdeen, which would be much more efficient and environmentally friendly at ground level?

Siân Berry, the Green Party candidate for mayor of London, is voiciferously anti-airport expansion and proposed at the last election to replace the airport with housing. Regrettably, for 2021 Britain, a country that seems obsessed with looking into an airbrushed version of the past, this almost seems too sensible.

But I did think, as I wheeled my broken bike back to the DLR, admiring the quiet, people-friendly space of Royal Albert Dock, without the thundering of A318s and E-Jets above, how nice it would be if we had the vision to say it could always be like this.

A red Dutch bicycle on its kickstand with a flat front tyre, parallel to a paved dockside. Across the waters of the dock is London City Airport, with some British Airways jets standing on the tarmac.