Red Metropolis is a strange book, largely because, somewhat by its own admission, it’s not really a book at all: it’s somewhere between an overgrown essay and a coping mechanism. This is not to say that it is bad (quite the contrary: it is good) but to say that it is somewhat hard to pin down, accordingly, somewhat hard to write about. It begins with a quote from Herbert Morrison; “There is no standard London stock, no standard London speech- there is no common London type. Our origins and our characteristics are very mixed. So I’m not sure what London is. I am not sure who the Londoners are. But I love London: I love Londoners”. If you read this and feel municipally moved, feel bittersweet pride to be a Londoner, by birth or by choice, then this is a book that you should read.
Beautifully illustrated with stark photographs throughout, Red Metropolis is, on the face of it, a short history of “socialism and the government of London”. In this capacity, it’s an engaging and informative trip through Herbert Morrison’s LCC, Ken Livingstone’s GLC and Sadiq Khan’s City Hall. Hatherley’s writing is typically lucid and compelling, and he has a fine eye for the details that make the past pop- from Herbert Morrison’s decision to veto all night opening for lidos because people will be “fucking each other” in them (Herbert Morrison, sex negative icon) to vivid, exciting descriptions of Livingstone’s county hall as a true people’s palace (“the visiting dignitaries and officials of earlier times were replaced by a cross section of Londoners, ranging from punks and Rastas at one end to parties of Bangladeshi old age pensioners at the other”). The author approaches his topic by examining what he determines to be the driving forces of left London politics- “the social democratic state that has improved the lives of millions for the better, through aggressive, top down transformations of health, housing, leisure and work; and the local social movements that have brought in the unruly energy and strong democratic commitment that the most radical bureaucracies can too often forget about”- and how they interact. He frames events, from the Poplar rate strike of the early 1920s (where local councillors were imprisoned for refusing to raise taxes against the orders of the LCC- among them Minnie Lansbury, who would die of pneumonia brought on by her imprisonment in 1922), to recent the clashes between activists and Southwark council over the re-development of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, as chapters in this ongoing struggle-cum-partnership.
In parts, the book’s broad subject matter and short run time mean it comes across as somewhat rushed. It could stand to be better sourced, and the author could stand to know who has and hasn’t been the leader of Enfield council (he could probably also stand to have his book reviewed by someone who did not cut their teeth in Enfield local politics). This being said, Red Metropolis’s shortcomings do not stop it from being what the pride-of-place John McDonnell quote on its cover proclaims it to be: “an excellent basis from which to launch the next wave of radical thinking about the future of the capital”. It was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 general election, which I will never get over, and you will never get over, and Owen Hatherley is so not over that he has written a book about not being over it, saying that the process “was in many ways an attempt to write myself out of that feeling of numb horror”. The book talks, in its opening, about its aspiration to being the kind of history that takes an unequivocally political stance. Its problem is not that this is not something a person cannot or should not do, but rather that in walking the line between politically informed history and contemporary jeremiad it ultimately overbalances, because Owen Hatherley is not over the 2019 general election, and he just wants to write about the 2019 general election, and that’s fine, because you’re not over it either, so you just want to read about it. This is all to say that if you are looking for a thorough history of left London government, you should probably look for something that was written in more than a few months, but you should read Red Metropolis first.
Hatherley’s diagnosis of the profoundly unwell way that London is often discussed is as sound as any you will read. By the “classical definition”, he writes, “of people who sell their labour power to survive and do not own property, London is the most proletarian city in the country”. Rates of job security are also lower in the capital, and rates of home ownership are vastly lower than in the much talked about “red wall”. The whole book simmers with invigorating contempt for everyone who has caused the world to be as it is (that is to say, shit; there is a particularly fine swipe at former Newham Mayor Robin Wales for having “essentially turned one of the poorest places in the country into an enormous property business with a sideline in residual welfarism”) and for a media class that has entirely detached itself from material reality to favour narratives of metropolitan elites vs left behind towns. “Terrible things happening to Londoners were of no interest”, he writes, but “the massed pundits of the BBC and the Guardian constantly demanded that we all felt the pain of Stoke on Trent”. Not, Hatherley notes, that the pain of Stoke on Trent is not real; in fact, he posits, proletarian Londoners do have one thing over their counterparts elsewhere. Our proximity to filthy lucre, to what Oliver Bullough has termed “Moneyland”, coupled with the modicums of change brought about by left London governments, has instilled in Londoners a belief that change can happen. In London, things are still horribly, brutally possible.
Hatherley quotes a section of China Mieville’s The City and the City as a preface to one of his later chapters. Not being a Mieville completist (shoot me), I haven’t read The City and The City, but I have read Kraken, and it was an image from this book that had pulsed just behind my reading of Red Metropolis: a scene where the characters take up a section of pavement to reveal bloody viscera, the intestines of the city. This is how London has often felt to me, how I imagine it feels to those who, like Morrison, love London and love Londoners. The Mile End Road is the spine of my life, and each day I buy my fags and milk under Minnie Lansbury’s clock, and I never fail to find it beautiful, and Hatherley’s strange, imperfect book captures a rare sense of London as overlaid by history and competing ideas and by the day-to-day lives of millions of people, the kind of sense of a city that’s hard to pin on a page; for that alone it’s worth your time.