London: 03 July 2070…
IT had been a long time since I had been in London. The long decades of riots and acute unrest had given way to a sinister stand-off. Concerted mass action was slowly replaced by vicious personal attacks as remaining citizens sought to keep their hand in while waiting to see which direction the bitter wind of popular spite would now blow.
The initial bank riots were from another world. And so were the names… Boris Johnson: strapped to a Barclays hire bike – launched blustering and pontificating off Tower Bridge. Mervyn King a less than regal demise involving the statue of a previous Governor who would never have been so interventionist in life. George Osborne a fate more gruesome with every retelling and Big Bad Bob Diamond: indeterminate and elusive – years of curious immortality as the Martin Bormann of the finance world – an urban myth, a folk devil, a warning to children: often seen, always imagined, never found; in a popular purgatory of his own making.
What followed were race riots, gang riots, food riots and then just riots that no one could be bothered to name – by then even the social commentators had grown weary and joined in. The raising of the financial sector, the flight of the ageing King William – accompanied by rumours that he had been no more than a hologram-projection for years – and the many ill-advised attempts at government were little more than spitting phlegm to assuage a river of blood. London – it wasn’t a great place to be.
We came up the river from the east in a cool mist that softly caressed my face but did nothing to assuage my nerves – drifting past the badlands adjacent to the Thames barrier and the derelict Olympic park where dogs and biped predators wandered in packs and vague skeletal shapes that were once flesh still hung from the five rings.
“Boris Johnson: strapped to a Barclays hire bike – launched blustering and pontificating off Tower Bridge.”
The route was to avoid trouble – if the possibility of arbitrary execution could be contained in so understated a phrase – and because of the lack of petrol, diesel, oil and anything else useful and civilised beyond reliance on sub-human muscle power. The electricity deficit with the Russian oligarchy/Chinese alliance meant all of Europe had entered a new era of darkness and state-sponsored terror. Recent memory was haunted by little else and those that did remember both cursed and envied the oblivion of the shuffling grey ghosts that wandered the riverside vistas that were once so in demand with the upwardly mobile. Now that was a term from another era: no one looked up these days for fear of meeting another’s gaze, seeing one’s own reflection or contradicting the overwhelming evidence.
Any attempt at contemplation on this or any other burning topic ended abruptly as I was pushed ashore by the intimidating pilot of what appeared a longboat ingeniously constructed from pallet wood. We had made good time for my appointment and slipped with a gentle slosh along side the makeshift jetty as he made to stow the oars. From the feverish processes of making money back so long ago this East End outpost had returned to being a backwater.
Appointment… it was a word redolent of old order. As I stood daydreaming of meeting a man who still used such language in the face of such chaos – it was his description; his stipulation of time and place after all, not mine – I was startled by a dig in the ribs by a hand which then directed me to my destination with a wave and a curt: “There!” The old industrial inlet just below the shell of the high rise castles where they worked cast long shadows. Outlines and blurred shapes of what were once orderly ranks of hermetically sealed windows were now like so many unblinking eyes. A sign for Canary Wharf had been defaced with – It’s all over bar the crying – perpetrated in garish red paint by some philosopher from the school of hard knocks: there were no signs of what we used to call life.
I made my way past the empty facade of a building called The Duke of York. It must have been a pub back then: people socialising over a drink – what a quaint idea. I was to meet him in the remains of a gated community built in the time of the Millennium. It housed what were called traders and their families although for most this was not their primary home but a convenient – nonetheless luxurious – London base for work.
Number 10 Greenwich Mews… the front door was miraculously intact – somewhere inside rats shifted uneasily as if even they felt morally uneasy in his presence. Cockroaches shuffled and weighed up the pros and cons. The devil had more pressing engagements in other London boroughs.
Second floor master bedroom: views across a river now thick and black and topped with a greasy patina… Styx and stones… Deep breaths as my eyes adjusted to the half light. I pushed at the door: my heart beat rhythm to the avant-garde scrape across the floor. Accumulating dust and the dimly lit remains of something that defied description – or investigation – put up a fight like a resistant music critic. And suddenly there he was – seated at the other end of the empty room – I was in the presence of a dinosaur – a former Master of the Universe.
He was over ninety years old by my simple reckoning. Figures were never my strong point and for those to whom it was second nature well, their prowess was now as derelict as the buildings and provided no greater benefit. Here was someone who remembered and had played an active part in the decisive third cataclysm of the global recession – the so-called Diamond days phase that was triggered initially by the 2008 banking crisis.
He wore a trilby at what I thought was a jaunty angle in the circumstances – though maybe I was subconsciously looking for trouble – and leather gloves. Living history raised his body from the chair with an inward take of breath that resembled a moan; one of his ankles cracked and what was left of his grey hair hung lank beneath the rim of his hat and in grave need of a barber. He had shaved and his heavily creased suit jacket gave off the spirit if not the reality of Savile Row. If he had worn a tie it might have bundled up the loose hang of scrawny giblets at his neck. Many would have gladly restored order with a rope. Shaving to avoid injury must have taken forever… the check list of antiquity was superceded as soon as I saw his eyes. These were still animated and glinted I imagined with the pride of a profitable deal: with the unrepentant stare that our forbears had recognised at the trials of old Nazis from the World War before the last.
He shuffled toward me, removed his gloves and held out a wizened, heavily-veined hand and said in a clipped but still strong and confident English public school accent a firm – “Hello.” Then as if in explanation, justification or the plain need to focus his mind on something gone but not forgotten…
“Yes… I am a banker.”
END OF PART ONE