Back to the Blitz

By Andrew O’Hagan, the author of three novels and The Atlantic Ocean: Essays on Britain and America (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/10/08):

If one is willing to wait long enough, the looniest books can come to seem like masterpieces of common sense. For instance, this has been a very good week for Edmund Wilson’s 1963 rant “The Cold War and the Income Tax,” in which Wilson, the great American stylist and Britain-hater, chooses to unload on those who would use his taxes to build nuclear bomb shelters.

Only yesterday I saw a man in a three-piece suit reading Wilson’s tome rather avidly in Regent’s Park. I swear he was nodding, clearly oblivious to the fact that the book in his hands was barking louder than the dogs at his feet. In London, when people start reading Edmund Wilson’s economic opinions in broad daylight, you know that hysteria has suddenly overpowered the rational faculties.

I checked the book when I got home and concluded that the man on the park bench had not been turning purple via the rigors of self-analysis. “The present image of the United States,” it concludes, is “homicidal and menacing. … And for all our boasts of wealth and freedom we are submitting to deprivation and coercion in order to feed and increase it.”

London has no very distinguished record of claiming responsibility for its own messes; therefore, this very bad case of black lung at the banks has many a Londoner seething at the subprime-mortgage disaster in America. In contemplation of the terrible gulf between credit and deposits, Britons are liable to sound like the disillusioned narrator Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby” as he assesses the brutal world of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.”

But it’s our own fault too, and everybody knows it. London has been living like a drunken sailor for the last decade, tripping up the High Street in a small delirium of deregulation and fantasy wealth. In the last few years, house prices in tony Primrose Hill have doubled and doubled again as traders on huge bonuses — proud of London’s reputation as a center of the new financial universe, with them as its masters — bought $8 million houses and effectively banished most of the rest of us from inner London. Champagne sales have been through the roof — Britain drinks more of it than the whole of the United States — but last week The Times of London reported that the only product showing a fresh boom in sales was home safes, as people begin to feel it might be safer to lock their money up at home than keep it at the bank. Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s $870 billion rescue plan for British banks didn’t do much for the confidence of anyone I spoke with.

“It might save Brown’s reputation, but the big party’s over for everybody else,” said one of three men staring into the depths of their cappuccinos at the Cafe 79 on Regent’s Park Road. The cafe is just a few doors down from where Friedrich Engels once lived, now marked with a blue plaque. The men in the cafe were very much at one with the national mood, seeking urgently to punish those fat cats and other greed-driven oligarchs who were pulling us into recession.

“Look,” one of them explained, “they might call it ‘recapitalization,’ but what they are doing is nationalizing the banks. It’s beyond belief. I don’t know if people really understand what is happening.”

“Yeah, it’s beyond belief,” said his friend. “After all this global market stuff we’ve been hearing for years, the government is basically doing what Tony Benn” — a hardcore socialist politician — “was advocating in 1983. Trade is contracting and it’s as if Thatcher had never existed. All that stuff.”

“God,” said his friend. “Remember it, ‘The End of History’ and all that?”


“We’re back to where we started, with the government bailing out the banks and everybody reusing their teabags.”

My friend India Knight, a columnist for The Sunday Times, joined me. “It’s quite nice,” she said. “A bit like the Blitz. A bit of decadence in the dark, you know?”

“Socialism is bursting out all over,” I said.

“I know,” said India. “Greed is not good.”

The restaurants in Primrose Hill were looking pretty but empty. The men finished their coffee and shrugged as they left. “Good luck,” one said to the cafe owner. “Things are going to be very tough.”

Another old friend turned up with cigarettes for everybody. “It’s amazing,” he said, with an observation about the glistening financial center on the Thames. “It looks as if Canary Wharf is going back to what it was — the Isle of Dogs.”