Jason Goodwin: ‘Never has London looked so gilded and so monstrous’

Our columnist laments how the 'slew of foreign cash and universal greed' has changed the capital — and not for the better.

Every month for the past six months, my friend Guy and I have been taking a band of pilgrims through the streets of London, starting from All Hallows by the Tower to end with Evensong at Westminster Abbey. Guy sings and I talk about Trojan kings and standing stones, as we wend our way past churches and holy wells and other sacred sites of the city. It is a way of seeing beneath London’s streets to its hills and rivers and holy places.

When I drove up the other day, reaching the city towards dusk, never, I thought, had I seen it so gilded and so monstrous. All around rose slab-sided buildings, big beyond reason. The grotesque megalopolis at Shepherd’s Bush gave way to an array of glittering shells, brightly lit against the sky. Vast television screens jabbered meaningless slogans at passing traffic, promising instant gratification, immediate delivery, drinks, food, big-screen entertainment.

I ploughed on down the Euston Road. Overhead, empty towers soared on every hand, featureless, repetitious, battening on a slew of foreign cash and universal greed. Around me growled the traffic, gridlocked by blinking lights and prohibitions, remotely enforced by cameras and fines.

“Lament is an honest response to the trouble in the world. Lament bows before the experience of misery, grief and loss, even the pain of hopelessness.”

When I finally arrived at my father’s place, I entered like Micah, like Jeremiah, like Ezekiel, blazing and raging. ‘Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery,’ says Nahum. Or ‘Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker!’ as Isaiah puts it. ‘Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!’ Zephaniah cries, and he goes on: ‘She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God. Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow.’

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There are times and moods that require Biblical language: archaic times, when we reach for words that have not lost their force, which belong to a more profound and elemental understanding of human experience than newspaper reports. These are medieval and Shakespearian and prophetic images, the gnawing of bones, the circling of wolves, the imprecations. We don’t say ‘alas’, or ‘lo!’ in ordinary conversation. Country singers occasionally use the word ‘woe’, but it doesn’t often get aired in hospitals or psychiatric units.

The communion litany suggests it is ‘meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks’. No doubt. There’s also a period appointed for acknowledging unhappiness and regret, a season of lamentation. Lament is an honest response to the trouble in the world. Lament bows before the experience of misery, grief and loss, even the pain of hopelessness.

Not everything gets better and better or funnier and funnier or quicker and nicer and tastier. That is the progressive myth, by which we expect the world to get richer and happier, the people taller, with someone to solve our problems, doctors to cure diseases, science to make the pain go away. As scientist Rupert Sheldrake notes, science cannot grasp what pains and inspires us — and it never will.

Lent is this season of lamentation. I lament the corruption and ugliness of modern London. I lament in my heart the death of people I love and animals I cared for and buildings that deserved better. I lament poverty, ignorance and greed and their persistence. I lament the war, and the orphaned children, the brutalised soldiers and the unwilling exiles. There’s not much else we can do about it. Jesus wept.