The apocalypse, when it came to London in summer 2012, was welcomed with open arms. “The Olympics,” they called it: Tories and Lib Dem MPs from the ruling Coalition used it to bury bad news and deflect grim tidings about the state of the economy; broadsheet editors trimmed their commissioning budgets by filling page after page with breathless boosterism from a few postcodes down the road rather than expensive investigations of foreign pastures; pop stars, fading footballers, and prime-time TV personalities gave good glow at the Opening Ceremony. Nearly everyone, keen post-Jubilee to have another knees-up jamboree, succumbed to coercive amnesia.
Forgotten by all but the gnarliest naysayers was the fact that London, already a Rings of Steel enclave, already CCTV-congested and drone-plane-surveilled, an ultra-security-conscious military fortress, had now become a state of exception: surface-to-air missiles were installed on public-housing towers in Leytonstone; the British military’s largest warship sailed up the Thames; the Mayor brought in 3,500 extra troops at the last moment to satisfy what he claimed was public demand. Olympic Games are branding exercises, opportunities for cities to present to the world artfully constructed model-visions of themselves; for all the talking up of heritage, eccentricity, and street-savvy creativity, London was doing some of its best business in the realm of panopticon placement.
It’s tempting to blow raspberries at the Games. They compel chiliastic prose, sandwich-board doomsdayism. Iain Sinclair, writing in 2008, portrayed/prophesized the “scam of scams,” a “tsunami of speculative capital, wanton destruction” in which “every civic decency, every sentimental attachment, is swept aside.” But the destruction of the Lea Valley—its transformation from wildscape to velodrome—to say nothing about the use of deadline urbanism (A.K.A. pick a year, any year: 2008 in the case of the Beijing Olympiad, 2010 for the Delhi Commonwealth Games, 2013 for New York University’s coronation—and all existing civic regulation and planning restrictions will be relaxed to ensure target completion) as a strategy for cartographic upheaval is just a footnote to a bigger story.
That story is one in which London, formerly demonized as an inner city, an extended ghetto-in-the-making that was losing its industrial base and was now in the throes of white flight and ex-urbanization, had become a poster-child for neoliberalism. The role of culture in marketizing down-at-heel neighbourhoods is well known. And the “unworthies” displaced by developers and Olympic Delivery Authority henchmen—whether allotment holders, canal-boat dwellers, Romani men and women, small businessmen who had been trading on East London pastures now designated Eminent Domain—are but the most recent evictees in broader processes of gentrification. The vastly different possibilities for profiting from the Games afforded to local entrepreneurs (bereft of naming rights) and to multinational sponsors mirrors the chasm between a city comprised of an ever-growing precariat of immigrants, couch-surfing twenty-somethings, and demonized estate-dwellers on the one hand and, on the other, a boss class of bluebloods and plutocrats.
Many a novelist has sought to create panoramas of this modern London. Its asymmetries, inequalities, parallel realities. Think Zadie Smith’s NW (2012); think John Lanchester’s Capital (2012). Martin Amis, even. Publishers love to append the adjective “Dickensian” to any half-competent effort to map the metropolis. But perhaps the novel is the wrong form, a false container, too tidy—a gentrified landscape in its own right. There are other sly ways and lapsed lanes which are worth wandering for less exalted but at least as penetrating insights: semi-reputable realms fecund with fugitive textualities and ephemeral outpourings. Flyers, chatboards, billboard graffiti, saved-to-desktop documents in sticky cybershacks—all this noise, versions of what J.G. Ballard called “invisible literature”—offer clamorous intensities more compelling than the smooth sonorities to be heard in the gated compound of “literary London.”
A prime example is Savage Messiah, a zine produced from 2005–2009 by Laura Oldfield Ford. Taking its name from...