This article was published on the Guardian Comment is Free pages
Goodbye Cool Britannia, hello Tous à Londres
19 april 2009
We should stop putting London down. Even the French have realised it's the place to be.
A decade or so ago the fine American reporter, Stryker McGuire, the Newsweek bureau chief in London, put the term "Cool Britannia" on the front page of America's best weekly journal. A story was born. Cool Britannia became a watchword for the early Blair years. Cocained rock stars came to Downing Street, a gruesome tent was set up on Horse Guards Parade with Paul Smith suits on display, and cultural commentators such as Simon Jenkins swooned over the new Britain.
A couple of weeks ago McGuire buried Cool Britannia in the Observer, though in truth the Blairite term died with the Dome at the turn of the century. But now Europe's best political weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur, carries a front-page injunction to the people of France – "Tous à Londres" – with page after page of celebration of our nation's capital.
The sheer enthusiasm of the French reporters and columnists sent by the Nouvel Observateur is infectious. Who knows London who only London knows? "Undoubtedly the British capital is severely shaken by the crisis," the Nouvel Obs reports. "But since the Blitz London has survived other crises. Recession or not London continues to innovate, to provoke, to surprise and just two and a half hours from Paris, London remains the best place to relax," writes the paper.
The French journal discovers art galleries, jewellery boutiques, bars, clubs, restaurants, book stores and a throbbing life that British multicultural innovation continues to generate. They missed out on my favourite London treat just discovered this week in the company of my daughter and friends – the Havana Rumba show at the Riverside studios at Hammersmith. Cuban street music fills the theatre with an energy and passion that makes you want to jump on a plane to bury the US embargo of the island.
The whole theatre was up and dancing in our seats and aisles – and all this for £20, with reductions for students and seniors. We followed it with a late meal at West London's best Greek restaurant, John Humphrys' favourite, the Kalamari Grill on Chiswick High Street, run by its owner-cook, a positivist philosopher from Kosovo who came to study at the LSE and has ended up a better producer of Greek food than all the Cypriots and Greeks in town.
The Sunday before, with the same daughter, I went to the amazing Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. "Art, art, more art!" headlines the Nouvel Obs as it celebrates the explosion of art galleries in London after the dull philistine years associated with the Conservative era of Thatcher and Major. The utterly transforming sculpture Ghost by Kader Attia, on show at the Saatchi Gallery, is featured. The blank emptiness of these aluminium foil sculptures is one of the most powerful statements of the power of art to be seen anywhere in the world. As with the other extraordinary Iranian art the curator of this exhibition has brought to London, one can see that under the political ghastliness of the theo-dictators of Iran, a confident, witty, challenging culture is taking shape.
The Nouvel Obs celebrates the free entry into London galleries and surely it is time to put up a small statue to Chris Smith, the culture minister who won a rare battle against the Treasury to allow free access to art. As the philistines prepare to return to power, their first goal is to isolate Britain from Europe. How long before charges are re-imposed for museums and art galleries?
The French paper eulogises the Queen, who is presented as a typical Londoner. Who can blame a left-liberal French republican, as they look at their own head of state? But it is best to leave in the French their comments on our successor generation of royals.
The French and the rest of Europe are flocking back to London because of the devaluation of the pound. For us, going to Paris or Madrid or anywhere in Europe is now painfully expensive, but for lucky euro-earners, London and Britain have suddenly become very cheap. St Pancras International has never been busier. Shopping bags from London clog up the x-ray machines as cheap goods are taken back to France, Belgium and further afield as the high-speed rail network Neil Kinnock helped fashion when he was EU transport commissioner grows steadily.
So, at a time when the London press is on a major downer about Britain and its capital – as if the extraordinary transformation of Britain and London since the 1990s had never happened – it is cheering to read the French saying three cheers for London, which, for all its troubles, remains Europe's most vibrant capital.
And what a pleasure not to read a word about the current or past mayor. London exists independently of its politicians, its police, and its pundits. It is a profoundly European and world city. Goodbye Cool Britannia. Welcome to Tous à Londres!