Building a New Storytelling Platform for London

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[This was first published on the Literary Platform.]

My great-great grandfather was born in a workhouse in Smithfield. My great grandfather ran a café on the corner of Market Road and Caledonian Road in Islington, cooking breakfasts for the herdsmen and abattoir workers who laboured in the Metropolitan Cattle Market. I have nothing of theirs. No possessions; no photographs.

Yet, I have a fleeting sense of what their lives might have been like from the stories that were passed on by other family members: my great aunt describing the Zeppelin over Finsbury Park during the first world war; my grandmother’s close shave with a Messerschmitt thirty years later; my grandfather, a fireman during the blitz, telling me about taking to the sewers around St Paul’s cathedral one night in December 1942, when he and his crew had to escape the inferno that surrounded them.

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Why Boris Johnson Worries Conservative High Command

This is the Newsweek cover story for the edition dated May 7th.

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson poses for a pho...

Boris Johnson is late. Five minutes after the scheduled start of Mayor’s question time—a quasi-monthly opportunity for members of the London Assembly to demand a public accounting from the city’s top elected official—he arrives at last, wearing a backpack over his raincoat and carrying a large takeout coffee, his schoolboy thatch of platinum-blond hair even more disheveled than usual. He stuffs the backpack beneath his desk, casually tosses down a crumpled copy of the agenda, and removes his coat to reveal the traditional garb of the British ruling class: a navy-blue suit. “We’ll take item two while the mayor composes himself,” the chairperson, Jennette Arnold, says dryly.

The assembly members are seated in a horseshoe with Johnson at the open end, a lone figure in an expanse of purple carpet, his back to a big window overlooking the gray expanse of the Thames. As the Conservative mayor begins delivering his report, Labour members of the assembly try to shout him down, and the session soon degenerates. Arnold bangs her gavel. “I will not have this question time turned into a campaign,” she chides.

Like it or not, however, that’s exactly what the tumultuous meeting is—and it’s only a warmup. On May 3, Johnson is facing off in a rematch against one of Labour’s wiliest campaigners and most ruthless operators. The victor will run Europe’s largest and most diverse city for the next four years. In their last contest, four years ago, Johnson defeated the then-two-term mayor, Ken Livingstone. No politician in the city is more entrenched in London politics or more skillful at street fighting than Livingstone, a man who earned the nickname “Red Ken” in his titanic struggles against Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s, when she was prime minister and he led the now defunct Greater London Council. During the 2008 race, Livingstone called Johnson “the most formidable opponent I will face in my political career.” In the run-up to this week’s vote, opinion polls seesawed, but Johnson seemed to be pulling ahead in the home stretch.

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