Cover Story

London without a guidebook

"London without a guidebook" Continued...

Issue: "Minority report," Aug. 11, 2007

Bailey says he went "to argue with the vicar, to show him how clever I was," but found himself believing in the resurrection and other doctrines: "What got me the most is when the vicar said Christianity is not a religion, but a faith. . . . Then I started reading the Bible. It was almost like it was written for me. . . . I had been a self-control freak, so I prayed that God would take control of my life. And that's what happened. . . . When I stopped having fear of failure I had more success."

He started paying attention to what was happening not only in the streets but also in government offices: "Well-meaning white people have hurt us, and we've been self-indulgent. . . . They remove religion from schools but give out condoms, and girls end up with lone parenting their only career choice. They talk about rights but not responsibilities, as if blokes are incapable. . . . Add to that school failure. Some children are not going to be academically sharp, yet school doesn't teach them any vocational skills. . . . The government sucks in all the pounds and wastes them."

As Bailey made his opinions known, he found himself invited to Conservative Party gatherings: "First they wonder who I am, but when I talk they think, 'Bloody hell, he's making sense.'" The next step came when Conservative Party leader David Cameron, born into privilege and without inner-city experience, began consulting Bailey. A third step came earlier this year when the Conservatives nominated him for a seat in Parliament, the next election for which is likely to come in 2009 or 2010.

Black conservatives flummox U.S. liberals, and Britain's Labour Party reacts similarly. Bailey said, "Labour wants people to think that Conservatives all wear tweed jackets and have offshore bank accounts, and that blokes from my background will automatically join them. Labour actually is saying, 'You're not clever enough to think for yourself.'" But Bailey is, and he's also done the right thing personally: He married the girlfriend who pressed him to acknowledge Christ, and they had a baby earlier this year.

On the other side of the metropolis, Alan Craig walked around his Canning Town ward in east London and explained that his is the poorest neighborhood in the city, judging by the percentage of people living on state benefits: "This is where I want to be. I stand up for the vulnerable, the marginalized, because I'm a Christian." He said he favors private enterprise because "initiative and creativity are part of God's creation," but he also pointed out proudly the spot where Kier Hardie, a Christian Socialist and Labour Party founder, announced his candidacy to represent the Canning Town environs in Parliament: "I'm part of that tradition."

The "working class" element of that tradition has eroded as some residents became affluent and left, and others became members of the non-working, welfare class. German bombers during World War II leveled the area, which is close to docks famous for launching the first ironclad ship in 1860 and many since then-yet residents returned when the British government after the war responded by building drab, brown brick apartment buildings that have lasted for 60 years. But two new pressures on the neighborhood are likely to affect residents as much as German bombs and British bureaucrats did.

One friend/enemy of current residents is visible: Craig gestured toward the huge corporate buildings of Canary Wharf just to the south; three of them are the tallest in Britain. The buildings house offices of heavy hitters like Morgan Stanley and Barclays: Canary Wharf now rivals the downtown "City of London" as a commercial center. The whole development, begun two decades ago under Margaret Thatcher's watch, has created 100,000 jobs, many of them well-paid: Canary Wharf office workers eat at places like Hartley's, which sells "the American burger" (with organic leanback bacon and cheese) for $17.

Those who pay such prices are also willing to pay a lot for lodging, so Canning Town condominiums are beginning to replace the old housing as corporate workers look for space. The 2012 Olympics, which will stage most of its events in the Canning Town area, will accelerate that process. Canning Town will become prosperous not by dealing with the problems of poor residents but by driving them out. Craig does not romanticize the old way of life, with its family breakdown, addiction, and unemployment; he emphasizes the need for spiritual regeneration but also works hard to deal with specific material problems as they arise.

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