The image says ‘London’. My editor responds to my meekly expressed concern that the proposed cover of my new book, with its focus on Canary Wharf and Docklands, is not really the heart of the ‘alpha’ city. Grudgingly at first, I begin to absorb his point – if you are not a Londoner, if you are only faintly aware of what that city is about, if you might struggle to ‘place’ the city in some way, then this is indeed its heart to all intents and purposes. It helps that the U-shaped loop of the Thames offers an aesthetically pleasing enfolding of this space – the otherwise straight-line flow of the Thames repelled by the citadels of corporate HQs and finance houses. The effect is an attractive, symmetrical focal point to the cover.
Where is London’s centre of power, and what do we consider that power to consist of? If I were forced to put a thumb tack on a wall map of the city to indicate its heart I might hesitate, before plumping for the intersection of roads in front of One Hyde Park, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. This, as much as any other seat of city, City or national government, or transnational company’s office block, speaks of what the city has become in the past decade – a place for money and the moneyed. In this sense power feels like it is comprised of finance on the one hand, an international visiting, resident or investing wealth elite on the other, and with public service and government relegated to a backroom role of engineer, operating to maintain the machine and its component characters, institutions and flows of bodies, cash and bricks.
Picking a cover image is an attempt at distillation, just as the book itself is an attempt at distilling, viewing and summarising enormous forces and processes. By pointing to visible examples we can begin to glean the force of capital as it continues to shape the city.
As London and the UK begin a formal of severance of links to the EU today, the broader, more abstract empire defined by capital will be more assertively embraced, the saviour of the City, if not many of its citizens who endure a place of austerity, poverty and dislocation.