Don’t leave London – just make it work

A minister has said Londoners should move elsewhere to ease pressure on a crowded city. But there are other solutions

Published in the Evening Standard

For a while, London's tourists were blissfully unaware that this city has a problem with water. Since they didn't have lawns to water or cars to clean, they had no idea that the capital is running short and not so much as an inkling of Thames Water's hosepipe ban.

They know about it now, though, since Ken Livingstone has covered Tube stations and bus stops with posters featuring a toilet bowl and the not-quite-memorable slogan: Don't Rush to Flush If It's Just a Pee. Some visitors may even have heard the mayor himself spout forth, if you'll pardon the expression, on this subject, testifying that he has not flushed at home after a mere number one for well over a year.

Now, however, one of the mayor's Labour colleagues has come up with an even more ingenious solution to London's water woes. Environment minister Lord Rooker said the answer was for Londoners to move to wetter parts of the country. Or as the Standard headline captured it: "Want water? Move to Wales."

Perhaps Rooker might want to set a lead and head off to Abergavenny himself. Oh no, he would say, I couldn't possibly: my work is in London. Well, join the club.

More useful would be a determination to solve the problem rather than run away from it. In the case of water, that doesn't mean praying for rain in the south east, but tackling one of the key sources of the London shortage: leaks. At the last count, Thames Water was losing just shy of 900m litres a day through leaks. This summer the company missed its leak reduction target for the third year in a row. Now the German parent firm, RWE, has sold Thames off, leaving themselves half a billion pounds richer. The rest of us, meanwhile, are still saddled with a fifth-rate service. New owners Macquarie must now to continue, if not expand, the #3.1bn investment programme they have inherited, doing their best to upgrade the pipes and stop those leaks. Either that or they persuade us all to move to Wales.

And this logic does not just apply to the woeful case of London's water. In every aspect of city life, it would be tempting to follow Rooker's lead, throw our hands up and declare that London?s just too big and that people should live somewhere else. After all, there?s a kind of madness in a nation in which more and more people huddle in a cramped southeastern corner, while the rest of the country remains spaciously open. The latest government statistics project an increase in London's population by 20% by 2026, far outstripping low single-digit growth elsewhere in the UK, while the numbers in some places, Scotland among them, are actually shrinking.

In an ideal, logical world, those Londoners who are tonight crammed into heaving Tube trains or stuck in M25 traffic jams would instead be spread about, so that they could walk to work across the heathered hills of the Highlands or cycle along the roomy banks of the river Tyne. (Although the reality is they would all be getting in their cars and doing more damage to the environment).

But we don't live in an ideal, logical world. Instead we live in a UK whose engine and hub is London, responsible for 18 per cent of the economic activity of the entire country (even with just 12% of the population). Some may wish that were different, but that's the way it is. And it?s the task of government to face up to that - and make it work.

Labour, to its credit, seemed to recognise that. That's why it ended the absurdity of London being the only great city in the world without its own strategic authority. It put that right, creating the mayoralty. But its responsibility cannot end there. It has to ensure that London is equipped to do the job the rest of the country relies on it to perform.

That starts with infrastructure. Leaky old water pipes are part of it but so, centrally, is transport. It is absurd that Londoners are left waiting for nods and winks from the Chancellor as to whether or not Crossrail - the east-west link this city has been crying out for for decades - will be funded. The latest signals are good, with a hint from Gordon Brown yesterday that there could be movement on the #12bn needed, maybe even getting the project moving by next summer. But there shouldn?t be a wait at all: linking the financial district around Liverpool Street to its counterpart in Canary Wharf is essential if London is to retain its pre-eminence as a financial centre, and linking both to Heathrow, as Crossrail would, is a must.

Next comes housing. Right now, we assume London is as dense as it could be. Wrong. If London were as dense as Paris, there would be 35m people living here. But with population growing, we are going to have to get denser. Which means, horror of horrors, that we will have to become more like Paris.

That will mean building upward, with more vertical apartment blocks or at least more compact, terraced housing. We?ve already doing that in some areas: Bayswater and Earls Court are some of the densest areas of London. ?Are they so horrible?? asks the LSE?s Tony Travers. New York, with its tall roomy apartment buildings, shows it can be done. Says Travers: ?We need to be more Park Avenue, less Brick Lane.? And the place to do it need not be greenfield sites, but could be the vast swathes of brown field east of Canary Wharf.

That will require a change in the planning system, overcoming some of the traditional resistance to building upward, and a whole lot of investment. It will also require a cultural change by some Londoners, as we move towards higher-density living. What we can?t do is hope everyone is just going to go away, as Rooker imagines. This is one wave we cannot turn back; instead we just have to learn to ride it.

The Cabaret spell that won’t let us go

Published in the Evening Standard

Who could ask for a warmer Wilkommen than that? The new production of Cabaret, the show that put the camp into kulturkampf, has just opened to rave reviews and jammed switchboards, confidently anointed as the winter’s hot ticket.

It’s hardly a surprise. The critics have long ranked this tale of nightclubs, cross-dressing and tangled love in Weimar Germany among the very best musicals of the post-war era. Its look never dates while the tunes are belting, from the opening Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, through the candid cynicism of Money, Money – “It makes the world go round” – to the sinister warning of Tomorrow Belongs to Me. Londoners who’ve already seen Chicago, but like songs with their suspenders – you know where to go.

Not that Cabaret won’t face stiff competition. Another hit show from the 1960s, also adapted into a definitive movie with a career-making central performance for its lead actress, is on its way to the West End. Come November, Cabaret will be duelling against the Sound of Music.

But the two shows have something else in common, too – a feature they share with at least a couple more West End productions. Lurking, either in the background or foreground, are Nazis. The Von Trapps cross the border to escape them in the Sound of Music, while the chorus girls and boys of the Kit Kat Club end up cowering, nude and frightened, from them in the fatal end of Cabaret.

There is a similarly lethal climax to Bent, set in Dachau, and now revived with Alan Cumming at the Trafalgar Studios. And lets not forget the high-stepping goose-steppers of Springtime for Hitler, the show within a show at the heart of The Producers. From the Palladium to Drury Lane, the West End is awash with swastikas.

We shouldn’t single out the theatre. This is a trend that’s pervaded popular culture ever since publishers discovered that a Nazi emblem on the cover is a fast-track to the bestsellers’ lists. (Humorist Alan Coren memorably cashed in on the phenomenon when he combined non-fiction’s three most popular themes in Golfing for Cats – with a swastika on the jacket.) Or check the TV documentary channels: if you’ve just missed a film about Hitler, don’t worry, another will be along shortly.

Part of me welcomes this profusion of material about what remains the darkest episode in human history. Plenty of my fellow Jews once believed no artistic expression could ever do justice to the Holocaust in particular, and that therefore it was better not to try. That view was often expressed in the slogan “no poetry after Auschwitz,” or the call for silence after the Shoah – but it has palpably gone unheeded.

It was always doomed. Human beings need to get to grips with the horrors of their shared past and art, in all its forms, is the way they do it. Some efforts will be crude, some will backfire disastrously, but the urge is real and should not be repressed.

What’s more, now that the events of the 1940s are slipping from living memory into history – as veterans of the Second World War and survivors of the Holocaust enter their last years – I sympathise with those who are desperate to ensure none of it is forgotten. That need has become urgent in a world in which the President of Iran denies the reality of the Shoah, the leader of Hezbollah tells his supporters that “Jews invented the legend of the Holocaust” and Hamas’s official web site describes the Nazi murder of six million Jews as “an alleged and invented story with no basis.” Historian Robert Satloff in a new book reports that “Not a single official textbook or educational programme on the Holocaust exists in an Arab country.”

In that context, I’m glad that Britain has taken a stand against amnesia, that we have a Holocaust Memorial Day, that British school kids learn about the Nazi period, that those events live on in the collective memory, thanks in part to the likes of Cabaret and Bent.

And yet I still find my heart sinks a little, for reasons that reflect both of the two core aspects of my identity, Jewish and British. First, I am one of those Jews who prefers his Jewishness to be rooted in culture, tradition or customs that can be lived, enjoyed and celebrated. The alternative, as Howard Jacobson puts it in his brilliant, Booker-longlisted novel Kalooki Nights, is to dwell on “Five Thousand Years of Bitterness.” Some Jews make a religion of past suffering, with the Holocaust occupying a central, almost sacred space. But I prefer another way, to raise my children not to be burdened by Jewish death, but to delight in and marvel at Jewish life.

And, as a Briton, I wonder at a national psyche still shaped so extensively by the experience of the second world war. I notice how rapidly any political discussion descends into a comparison with the 1930s and 1940s, whether it’s Saddam Hussein compared to Adolf Hitler, al-Qaida to fascists or anti-war campaigners to pre-war appeasers. It’s as if this is the only history we know, so it becomes our only point of comparison. No one is Napoleon or Wellington, Philip of Spain or Elizabeth I: it’s only ever Hitler and Churchill, again and again.

It’s clear all this has had a profound effect on Britain, colouring our view of Europe, giving us a distorted sense of our place in the world. It has even led to a curious sense that our best years are behind us, that 1940 truly was our “finest hour” and that we can never be quite as good again.

None of this is the fault of a few West End shows. But Cabaret and the rest ensure that the Nazi period remains seared into the collective mind like no other. It’s right that we should remember it, but it casts a long shadow – and sometimes we need to step outside it.

Faith schools need not divide our city

Published in the Evening Standard

How do you solve a problem that looks, to many, like a solution? For some, faith schools are a danger to the cohesion of society, herding children into ghettoes at the very age they?re least burdened by prejudice. Just when they?d be happy to mix, faith schools keep them apart.

And yet parents seem to like them. They perform well and are often over-subscribed, forced to turn away those clamouring to get in. When so many state schools struggle with a reputation for mediocrity, not least in London, the near one-third of state schools animated by religion are seen as a welcome source of success. So is this a problem to be solved or a solution to be celebrated?

The truth is, a bit of both. Faith schools have undeniable strengths, but they come with dangers. The trick is to deal with the latter, without undermining the former.

Which is what the Church of England clearly had in mind with its latest proposal, to offer one in four places at Anglican schools to children outside the faith. They hope that will combat the de facto segregation identified in the Cantle report as a key cause of the tension that erupted in riots across several northern towns in 2001. Instead of an all-Christian, and often all-white, school surrounded by non-white, often-Muslim neighbours, these new-look Anglican institutions would be integrated.

You can?t knock that intention, but it may be na