London is now the capital of the world

Published in the Evening Standard

When I lived in the United States, the ex-pat Brits often used to fall into a competitive parlour game with our American friends. Which city was better, we would ask: London or New York?

That was in the mid-1990s and, back then, the game was not much fun. The result was always the same: on every measure, even the most proud Londoner had to concede, New York was the winner. (When your strongest argument is the quality of London's tea, you know you're beaten).

Now the contest has evened up, bigtime. If anything, these days it's our Manhattan friends who are on the defensive. Witness this week's report by consultants McKinsey, warning New Yorkers that Wall Street is losing its place as the world's pre-eminent financial centre to...London. New York was told that it risks seeing close to 60,000 jobs shift to London, as the British capital becomes the place where the surging economies of Russia and China come to do business.

The London Stock Exchange now has 419 international companies listed on it; New York has 174. As if to prove that the City has become the epicentre of globalisation, the London exchange has resiliently fought off a takeover attempt from the US market Nasdaq. Why do we need the Americans, London is saying: we're the future now.

It all adds up to rather more persuasive evidence of London's edge than the quality of Typhoo. And it's not just the City's strength as the capital of world capital. On all the measures my friends and I used to deploy in those late-night NY-LON arguments, this city is either amply holding its own or edging ahead. When I was in New York last autumn, I came away with a feeling I hadn't known a decade earlier. The city still thrills as it always did: the brashness and exuberance endure, even after the trauma of 9/11. But no longer did London pale by comparison. No longer were we the tired older brother, outrun by our younger, more energetic sibling.

On the contrary, each of New York's great assets can now be matched by London's. Sure, they've got Broadway, but the West End is having as much impact on them as they once had on us. Alan Bennett's the History Boys swept the Tonys, while next month - in the cultural equivalent of selling sand to the Sahara - we'll have the cheek to export to the Americans a slice of their own recent history, with the transfer to Broadway of the outstanding Frost/Nixon.

It's true that the US critics savaged Gordon Ramsay's foray into the New York restaurant market, but London cuisine is no longer the oxymoronic joke it once was. Instead this city is now, unarguably, what the Americans call a 'restaurant town' with world class eateries from Covent Garden to Chelsea (several of them bagging a clutch of new Michelin stars just yesterday).

Nor is London shopping the poor relation it once was: Harvey Nicks can look Bergdorf Goodman in the eye. What's more, we are developing that quintessential Manhattan feature, a genuine skyline ? often controversially ? thanks to the likes of the Gherkin, the Eye and Canary Wharf. We even have our very own, big-mouth, shoot-from-the-hip, US-style mayor in Ken Livingstone (while Manhattan is ruled by the more restrained, almost gentlemanly figure of Michael Bloomberg).

Part symptom, part cause of this rapid catch-up by London of New York is the fact that we now have a crucial feature in common: we are as diverse as they are. As much as 40% of London's population was born outside the UK. They are the new arrivals so long mythologised by New York culture, the young men and women of ambition who come to the big city believing that if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere. For more than a century, those newcomers have been the lifeblood of New York, making the place bristle with restless energy. But now London enjoys the same constant transfusion of new blood, as Latvians or Rwandans or Poles head here to chase their dreams.

What it adds up to is a London enjoying a confidence surely not felt since the Victorian era. The doyen of London studies, the LSE's Tony Travers, states it simply: "We're in the middle of a full-throttle golden age."

Inevitably, there is some tunnel at the end of all this light. The explosion of wealth is sending property prices in London's poshest areas through their well-appointed roofs, as Russian squillionaires bid against German bankers and UK hedge-fund tycoons for an address in Belgravia. The result is the madness that sees a Chelsea broom-cupboard go on sale as a "studio" for #170,000 this week - and receive several offers. Yet most analysts reckon these spiralling prices will stay confined to the higher altitudes of the London property market, barely affecting the cost of an average home in those postcodes lacking the prestige of an SW.

More serious is how difficult it can sometimes feel to live inside this seething, throbbing city, whether its congestion on the roads or the sheer number of people on the street. If we keep growing, outpacing even New York, how liveable will London be?

It's fair to wonder too how the country as a whole can hang together, when the South East economy keeps stretching further and further ahead of the rest of the UK. And since London is only getting more diverse, it's legitimate to ask what will happen when, say, 50% of Londoners are born outside the UK, or 60% or 70%. None of us have lived in such a city before; how to make it work is unchartered territory.

These, though, are the problems of success, ones Londoners will have to solve. But for now we should savour the moment. Even our greatest rival admits it: London is fast becoming the capital of the world.

Racism’s true face, as seen on Big Brother

Published in the Evening Standard

We should be grateful to Celebrity Big Brother. Not a sentence I expected to write, I confess. After all, the Big Brother house has become a kind of latter-day Bedlam, a place of misery which demeans those gazing in as much as those condemned to be looking out. Like the Londoners of the 18th century who used to head to the Bethlem Royal Hospital to pay a penny “to view the freaks and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature, or at violent fights,” this is an entertainment that reduces everyone involved.

So, ordinarily, I would not be rushing to offer thanks to Channel 4 and the masters of the Elstree house. But sometimes you have to make an exception. The sight of George Galloway in a leotard, lapping like a cat at the cupped hands of Rula Lenska, somehow captured the vanity and exhibitionism of the man more perfectly than any number of political interviews. And now, the producers have performed another, even more significant service.

For the row over the treatment of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty has reminded us of something we’d prefer to forget. It has told us that, not very far below the surface of our society, there remains the most base, crude kind of racism.

Jo O’Meara, formerly of S Club 7, has been impersonating Shetty’s accent, in the manner of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. She, along with ex-BB inmate Jade Goody and beauty queen Danielle Lloyd, grew irritated that the Indian star had touched their food. After all, said Lloyd: “You don’t know where those hands have been.” O’Meara wondered if Indians were thin because they often got ill, thanks to undercooking their food.

It could almost be a throwback to the 1970s when British ignoramuses accused British Asians of talking funny, eating funny and being vaguely dirty. And yet this is not the 1970s, but the 21st century, when we thought we had left such things behind.

Officially we have. Today all politicians unite in praising the different communities that make up our society. In London, the mayor lets not a day go by without singing a hymn of praise to the “diversity” that makes us great. Big business has joined the chorus. Try to find an advert or company report which does not feature a mixed collection of faces when it seeks to show off its employees or customers. We’re all tolerant now, we tell ourselves again and again.

Indeed, to read some of our papers, you’d think the only problem is that we’ve gone too far, that it’s political correctness gone mad, when the only people who need to feel frightened are middle-class whites. For everyone else, London has become a cosmopolitan nirvana.

This complacency has not been confined to white circles. I have heard both black and Indian Londoners note, with a hint of guilt, that in the post-9/11 era, the pressure on them has eased. Muslims are the target now, they note warily. To be Afro-Caribbean or Hindu does not, they said, stir the hostility it once did.

Then along comes Big Brother to puncture that complacency. It’s been a reminder that whatever the platitudes repeated by official London – the politicians, the media, the big companies – at street level, some attitudes are stubbornly persistent. It’s rare for our official, public space ever to reflect that: how often are the likes of O’Meary, Goody or Lloyd given an opportunity to reveal their true attitudes to such matters? Usually, they jabber away about nothing. But pull away the showbiz veneer, scrape off the inch-thick layer of foundation, and look what you see underneath.

And there will be hundreds of thousands of Londoners who, when similarly candid, would talk just the same way. Note the testimony of novelist Hari Kunzru in yesterday’s Guardian, discussing the refusal by “celebrity” Jackiey Goody to learn Shetty’s name. That, said Kunzru, was “straightforwardly racist – every British Asian will have had that conversation at least once, complete with self-righteous complaints about the ‘difficulty’ of the task.” We should remember that next time we immerse ourselves in a warm bath of self-congratulation about British tolerance. On this point perhaps the smartest assessment has come from a former BB inmate, Narinder Kaur: “Lets not be shocked there’s racism in the house; there’s racism in society.”

She went on to say that viewers should be shocked, however, by Channel 4′s failure to act, even in the face of many thousands of complaints. Shocked perhaps, but surely not surprised. Does any one doubt that C4 executives are delighted by this turn of events? An ailing franchise, with a list of unknowns masquerading as celebrities, has suddenly been given a transfusion of publicity you couldn’t buy: condemnation from Gordon Brown, an echo from Tony Blair and questions raised in the House of Commons. Yesterday came the proof that it’s working: the ratings have surged.

What should Channel 4 do? They could send a powerful message by simply evicting, without fanfare, the three offending housemates. That could have an electrifying effect on playgrounds up and down the land, setting as powerful an example to young people as a referee showing a red card to a footballer guilty of hurling racist abuse. It would signal that some behaviour is not acceptable, no matter how famous or highly paid you are.

The downside is that the evicted three would become free speech martyrs, Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara cast as victims gagged for speaking their mind. Which leaves another option. Instead of waiting for C4 to act, we could act ourselves. True, it would have the drawback of making the programme producers a lot of money, but a mechanism is there and waiting to be used. We simply have to pick up the phone and evict the three, one by one – and then vote for Shilpa Shetty to win the whole competition. That would send a message all right, about who belongs in today’s Britain – and who doesn’t.

Occupied by thoughts of 1967

Published in the Jewish Chronicle

This is my last month as a 30-something. As if that?s not reason enough for angst, there?s another fact about turning 40 that I don?t like. No, it?s not my hairline or my ability to dance at parties without looking ridiculous. It?s Israel, specifically a turning point in Israel?s history that is now as old as I am. I am talking about the Six Day War.

For I was born in 1967, a year etched into the Israeli and Jewish psyche. At the time, and for the first few years of my life, that number seemed almost mystical in its power.

It was the year of the liberation of Jerusalem, the year the Jewish David took on the Arab Goliath and won, the year Israel exorcised the demons of the Holocaust by showing the world that the Jewish people were not doomed to be history?s victims, but could rise up as its victors. For a while, 1967 did not even have to be explained: it was a simple, four-digit shorthand for redemption.

But that did not last long. By the time I was 20, travelling around Israel, talking to men and women my own age about the legacy of 1967, the year had become associated with a turnaround that could have been lifted from Greek mythology. What had once seemed like a great blessing had instead, over two decades, come to look like a dreadful curse.

For now Israelis understood that the territories Israel had won that year were not just fairytale places from a Biblical dream, but home to a Palestinian population that had no desire to live under Jewish rule. They were not just Judea and Samaria, but the West Bank and Gaza. Shortly after the 20th anniversary the first intifada erupted, as if to remind Jews that what they saw as liberation was, to the Palestinians, a military occupation.

Back then, arguing the politics with other young idealists, I imagined the occupation was a temporary phenomenon. That it had lasted 20 years was shocking enough. But it was surely too intolerable to endure. The moral cost it was exacting ? turning every Israeli teenager into a jailer, a checkpoint guard, a ruler of a hostile people ? was too high.

The damage it was doing to Israel?s standing in the world, making the Jewish state not a member of the family of nations, as the first Zionists had dreamed, but a pariah, was too painful.

And, most crudely, it was clear that the occupation represented an impossible demographic danger, eventually leaving Israel ruling over a land containing equal numbers of Jews and Arabs.

Either such a state would no longer be Jewish, or it would no longer be a democracy ? denying citizenship to millions of Arabs. Surely the status quo couldn?t hold.

Yet here we are, the occupation as old as I am. Forty years on and it?s as entrenched as ever. Two reports in the Israeli press this week make the point. One showed that the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank had increased by six per cent last year, more than quadruple the rate of increase of the previous year: now there are just short of 270,000 settlers in the West Bank, not including the many more who live in East Jerusalem, also won in 1967. And the building goes on.

The other was the finding of the Israeli human rights group, Gisha, that Israel had not really let go of Gaza, despite the 2005 disengagement. Yes, the settlements have gone, but in other ways Israel has actually tightened its grip on Gaza, by heavily restricting freedom of movement of both goods and people, in and out. Gisha said the resulting ?economic and humanitarian crisis in the Strip [was] of a severity unknown? in all the years of occupation.

Is there any way out? Israel?s prime minister Ehud Olmert seems to be flailing, as if badly out of his depth. This week he admitted that the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza had been failures, and that negotiation was better.

Yet he has only met his Palestinian counterpart once ? last month ? and has so far failed to make good on the promises he made to him. There is no strategy, no plan and no vision. And the one outside player who could make a difference, the American president, is too weak and too blind to act.

So Israel is left saddled with this curse, one that eats away at its own moral and physical existence every day. I have a wish for my 40th birthday: that in the next 40 years diaspora Jews will put a fraction of the energy they put into defending Israel?s image abroad, into ridding the country of this terrible burden.

Because if we don?t, I genuinely fear that by the time of my 80th birthday there?ll be no Israel left to defend.

Give me back my faith in the Games

Published in the Evening Standard

Is it too early to panic about the Olympics? They are after all, a full five and a half years away. Still, now might be the time to get a bit jittery.

The cue for anxiety came from this week's government warning that it may have to raid the National Lottery's fund for good causes to foot the expanding bill for 2012. According to the Big Lotto Fund, that could imperil 86,000 grants worth a whopping

Is bank fraud really too trifling for the Met?

Published in the Evening Standard

I have been the victim of a crime which I didn’t even know was happening. I didn’t feel a thing. I only found out about it after most of the damage was done.

It was a few weeks ago now, going through the post, reading my bank statement. Normally, it’s a quick skim read and then shoved in a pile. But this time, I was unnerved to see the figure at the bottom of the page was dramatically lower than the one at the top: had we really spent so much money so fast?

I looked closer. How could I have spent #900 at an electronics shop that I had clean forgotten? When had we had a blowout at the World of Leather? And why were there withdrawals of the maximum #300 every single day?

By now, I could feel myself turning pale, the blood draining from my face. The bank statement, which normally runs to a page or two, went on for a full five pages, detailing day after day of enormous, extravagant spending. The bottom line showed that well over half of our savings had been wiped out.

I soon realised what had happened. A few weeks earlier, my wife had used an ATM machine at a petrol station. It had swallowed her card, the screen displaying a message that said the bank would be in touch to send a replacement. Except the machine hadn’t really swallowed it at all. Or, if it had, it had regurgitated it for someone else to use.

Which they did, as if they had just won the lottery. Remarkably, through all of this, our bank never called once to check if it was really us spending these huge amounts. Now, I like falafel as much as the next man, but was it really possible that I had spent a cool #1400 at a Turkish restaurant in Walthamstow not once, but three times?

What followed were days of phone calls, multiple form-filling and much angst. But, in the end, I’m glad to say, the bank acted impeccably and restored to us all the money that had been lost.

But who were the missing players in this drama? Why, the Metropolitan Police. The very force which, Sir Ian Blair promised when he took over as Commissioner nearly two years ago, would become more responsive to the needs of the public. We reported the episode to them, had a short phone call – dedicated to working out which station should have jurisdiction over our case – and filled in a form. After that, nothing. Certainly no visit to our home for an interview. Not even a detailed conversation over the phone.

When I mentioned this to the anti-fraud official at the bank, he replied in the trusty Scottish accent for which call centres are located north of the border, “Ah, that’ll be because you live in London. They’re so busy, this won’t count as a priority.”

I believe that. My wife’s bag was once nicked in a local cafe, her purse and cash all stolen. We reported it but the police did nothing. Even though the owners of the cafe had found CCTV pictures which showed the crime being committed – revealing, clearly and fully, the faces of the culprits – the police never so much as looked at the tapes.

At the time, I understood that. What’s one stolen bag in a city of eight million? But what happened to our bank account was serious fraud, involving tens of thousands of pounds. It was clearly a sophisticated operation too: the thieves had to tamper with the ATM machine, even changing its screen display. Yet, even this crime was seen as too trifling to warrant proper police attention.

One caveat. The bank official said it’s conceivable that the police are investigating – quietly, so they don’t risk alerting what could be a wider criminal ring. But that seems a stretch to me: surely, if the police really were pursuing such an inquiry, they would want to get at least a few details from us.

Instead, all we got was one of those letters saying the Met were sorry to hear that we had been the victims of a crime and that we were eligible for victim support. I was tempted to call back and say the only victim bloody support I wanted was a detective with a notebook in his hand asking the right questions.

And, make no mistake, this would not have been a difficult case to crack. The thief had carried on stealing right up until the morning we had discovered the fraud. The bank’s computer records showed the exact time he had taken the money out of an ATM. The police only needed to get CCTV footage of that machine and they would have nailed him. And our bank statements amounted to a virtual log of his movements, with dates and times, for the previous month.

About ten years ago, when ‘zero tolerance’ first became common parlance, policymakers spoke of the ‘broken window’ theory. It held that if even the smallest crimes went punished, then the big ones would be committed more rarely. If windows were not left broken, but repaired, people would be wary of smashing up the whole house. New York was the testbed for the idea, where police found that by cracking down on, say, graffiti, they saw an eventual decline in the murder rate.

Deal with the small crimes and the big crimes take care of themselves. That was the theory, and the practice, in New York. But London’s police don’t seem to have caught up. Get your bike nicked here, and the police will tell you they can’t do anything about it: there’s too much crime. They haven’t spotted the connection. There’s too much crime because no one investigates a stolen bicycle or bag or even a drained bank account.

So how about this for a new year’s resolution for Sir Ian Blair? Forget the victim support letters. Send a police officer instead.