Rainbow puddles on Park Lane

Following the trail of oil that runs through London's streets

Oil, and the wealth it brings, has left an indelible mark on London over the last fifty years: in transport, in civil society, in architecture, and, of course, in football. This article was written in April 2005, three months before the bomb attacks on London. Since then, the opening paragraphs have become eerily premonitory. But, as most Londoners would tell you, it didn’t take a clairvoyant to foresee what was to come.

It’s hard to make out much from the photo, not enough pixels, just about good enough for the internet. You can see a facade, in front of it, reduced to its bare skeleton, a burning vehicle, licked by tongues of yellow-orange flame blazing from the windows, pink clouds of smoke ascending into a mid-blue evening sky. One’s first thought is inevitably of a terrorist attack – perhaps a bomb on a bus in Israel. But no, this is London’s Park Lane, directly opposite Hyde Park, where on 15 February 2003 between one and two million people demonstrated – to no avail – against the war. “No blood for oil!” The demo almost didn’t take place, because the park authorities – what irony, considering the imminent desolation in Iraq – were worried about the state of the lawn. At the end of the day, few traces were left either by the crowds on the lawn, or by the war on everyday London, although a revenge attack by the global Islamic terror network was repeatedly described by Scotland Yard as “inevitable”. In this respect, a burning bus on one of the central traffic arteries of London should really have attracted attention, but in London, the pragmatic stoicism – one could also say insensitivity – that comes with being a world city is stronger than the tendency to panic. No one was injured, the frightened passengers quickly dispersed; after all, it was the third time something of this kind had happened. This gave the manufacturers occasion to withdraw all the new-fangled articulated buses for safety reasons. The construction problem in the fuel pipes was quickly located and remedied thoroughly, and everything was all right again, until this March, when the technically impossible happened and yet again the engine of a bendy bus went up in flames.

At this point, the sentimentalist in me can no longer be satisfied with technical explanations. There must be other forces at work, perhaps the vengeful spirit of all the stinking old double-deckers that were due to be replaced by the new articulated buses, because they didn’t meet safety standards any more. But this image of burning buses also gives rise to other associations, memories of a film that runs at the London Transport museum in Covent Garden. The film is made up of old news clips, and is about the buses’ rise to power in 1952 as the sole means of public transport on London’s streets, coinciding, as logically as tragically, with the death of the long-forgotten London tram system. The imposing wooden frames of the double-levelled tram were burned on open fires in the cathartic rush of the victorious petroleum era. The rickety old wagons that had ferried the South London rabble up to the West End were reduced to ashes. Not for nothing was the squeaking of the trams in Graham Greene’s London novel, It’s a Battlefield (1934), always an unmistakable metaphor for a proletarian milieu. The future belonged to the new middle classes and the rail-free Routemaster Bus, trundling symbol of the petroleum-fuelled affluence after postwar austerity, and in those days, not the competitor of individual transport but its armour-plated forerunner. Finally, the pedestrian, who only recently had roamed freely and confidently between trams and carts, had been pushed off the streets. In the name of technical and social progress, miles of track were torn from London’s streets.

A decade after the Routemasters had seized power, and Park Lane had already metamorphosed from a parkside promenade into an urban motorway. Ever since, a multiple-carriageway string of fairy lights has rolled past the window displays of London’s most expensive car dealers. There’s even been a wedge knocked out of the bottom corner of one of the ornate Edwardian blocks of flats, just big enough to install a small petrol station at London’s best address. Park Lane, this noblest of race tracks, runs along the west end of Mayfair, from Hyde Park Corner up to Marble Arch, London’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe, cut off from the rest of the city by a major roundabout. What the British capital neglected, in the absence of absolutist rulers, by way of authoritarian intrusion into the street map, was more than made up for by the motor car in the 1960s. A labyrinth of underpasses sends the pedestrians on humiliating diversions through urine-drenched passages. Meanwhile, the procession of gleaming luxury limos and taxis filled with ball guests going past above their heads resembles an upmarket version of the TV advert for Ford cars, where a chain of vans, lined up bumper to bumper, chugs along a country road. The camera pulls back more and more, until eventually you get a view of Great Britain from outer space. From the north to the south, the glittering headlights of the transporters give the island a kind of lit-up spine. The slogan, thundered out by a strong, manly voice: “Ford Transit – the backbone of Britain.”

There was a time, in the late summer of 2000, when that sounded like a threat. On 13 September, on Park Lane no less, the backbone of Britain suffered a serious slipped vertebra, when 200 lorries parked on the thoroughfare, wilfully provoking a traffic standstill throughout London. Protesting against the high diesel and petrol prices in Europe, the country’s truck drivers more or less spontaneously decided on civil disobedience. The inflationary oil prices, combined with the rate of fuel tax increased annually by the so-called “escalator system”, had for the first time pushed the price of petrol up over 80p. Instead of driving to work, thousands of lorry-drivers drove to the country’s large refineries and appealed to their fellow tanker drivers there to go on strike. The oil companies did not stand in their way, instead advising their employees not to leave for safety’s sake – after all, a full tanker wouldn’t have reacted too well to a Molotov cocktail, should one have been thrown. The surprising benevolence towards the picketers and blockaders probably also had something to do with the fact that, throughout the country, fear of a fuel shortage was leading to mass panic-buying. Absurdly, twenty percent more petrol than usual was sold during the week-long blockade. Because of increasing demand, the oil companies cheekily added two pence to the price per litre.

For a week, London was a city of public transport, which breaks down regularly even at the best of times. In this respect, the difference was not all that pronounced – in stark contrast to the hush left behind by the sudden decrease of private transport, silenced by the fear of petrol shortages. You could even smell the gardens in Camden Town. Still, from an ecological viewpoint, the lorry drivers’ strike was nothing to be all too happy about, since it awoke the dormant anger of the motorists, and in doing so, destroyed the existing consensus on environmental taxes. On the other hand, the shameless upping of petrol prices by successive governments of various hues had hardly been motivated by heightened environmental awareness. The higher than average “stealth taxes” on petrol, tobacco, or alcohol were, and still are, the preferred British method of keeping the level of income tax at a placatory low rate – a tactic that logic says must be funded by the less well-off. Not that the populist Right of William Hague’s Conservative Party, which was sympathetic to the lorry driver’s appeal, would have set much store in pointing out such connections. But the protests had another, symbolic relevance, because, whether by chance or not, they coincided with the bubble-burst of the start-up boom. After the excitement that had lasted throughout the late 1990s about a vision of immaterial business conducted by mouse-click, driven by the gutsy ideas that young, skateboarding entrepreneurs propounded in business supplements and style magazines, the apocalyptic scenarios of so-called post-industrial society conjured up by the petrol crisis consigned all illusions of independence from material goods to memory. Suddenly, the supermarket shelves were empty, the government was seriously considering rationing groceries, and the National Health System went on red alert. In these circumstances, one might think a cool web portal with Flash animation would have been of little avail. In fact, the new rage for online-shopping had just sent a new fleet of delivery vans onto the streets. In the better districts of London – Knightsbridge or South Kensington, for example – the supermarkets, mindful of their customers’ reputations, went so far as to deliver their products in black Range Rovers, rather than grubby white vans with the cheap company logo on them. This, by the way, brings to mind a strange contradiction in that protest movement of 2000: while upright citizens, the majority of whom were behind the lorry-drivers, saw themselves as being bled dry by rising oil prices and taxes, the boom for gas-guzzling luxury vehicles set in for real. The “Sports Utility Vehicle” may have come into fashion in the US as the ultimate expression of motorized machismo, but in London’s street-warfare, the oversized pseudo-countryside vehicles by luxury brands such as Mercedes or BMW gained yet more social kudos by virtue of their owners’ open nonchalance towards rising petrol prices, a demonstration of double material potency. In the idyllic suburbs of north and southwest London, where multiple speed bumps often challenge even the best of suspension systems, the hulks of the urban off-road vehicles, fat and shining in the sunshine, dominate the over-narrow streets as the unmistakable sign of “a good area”.

Great Britain is a high-octane society. Regular petrol isn’t even sold at petrol stations; it has to be a premium 95 octanes at least. But the transformation brought by the car on a city such as London is of course only an indirect consequence of the dominance of the oil industry in the past fifty years. The dawn of this era did not encroach upon the face of the city in the form of widened streets alone: the oil industry also demanded its own palace, and got one in the shape of the impressive, if inelegant building on the South Bank, visible from far and wide – the Shell Centre. Its position within view of the City’s money temples, the art-d�co encrusted pleasure-domes of the West End, and the government buildings at Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament nearby, means that the South Bank naturally lends itself as a gallery of large-scale cultural and technological ambitions. In 1951, the penultimate year of the tram, it was the site of a patriotic exhibition of art, technology, and architecture, brainchild of Clement Attlee’s progressive Labour government. With “The Festival of Britain”, the atrophied colonial power attempted to formulate its place in the modern world, even if the postwar reality of meat rationing and standardized house-paint had little in common with the bold Utopias of the artists and architects. This Grand Proj�t wasn’t intended to last forever. On the contrary, the breathtaking modern pavilions created expressly for the big show were only to be provisional – initial visions that were nevertheless soon surpassed by the glittering future. Only the Royal Festival Hall remained standing, and served as the prototype for the radical buildings next door, such as the National Theatre, the National Film Theatre, and the Hayward Gallery.

Both up- and downstream, the culture complex today is flanked by two monuments to technological power: to the west, the still hollow Battersea Power Station, with its four powerful chimneys, long-since cool, and to the east, Bankside power station with its single phallic air-flue. Both these power stations were designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the classic red telephone box and architect of Liverpool’s revolutionary Catholic cathedral. While Liverpool Cathedral resembles a factory, these power stations look like cathedrals of the age of heavy industry. Work on the art-d�co Battersea building, which would grow into one of the world’s largest brick constructions, began as early as 1929, though its first, slimline version with two chimneys was only completed at the beginning of the war. Between 1953 and 1955, the power station received a twin structure, and with it, its characteristic symmetrical appearance. In the intervening period, the chimney at the Bankside facility, which was built in two phases, had already shot up from the ground, and the west wind spread the discharge from the two smoking giants far over London’s predominantly underprivileged southeast.

Nowadays, both these tamed monsters enjoy sentimental eulogy. Bankside accomodates the Tate modern, and Battersea is currently being converted into an apartment-, office-, retail-, and leisure-complex. At the beginning of the 1970s, on the other hand, the oil era felt challenged to oppose these two symbols of the coal era with its inert declaration of war: 1963 saw the ceremonious opening of the two-part Shell Centre, directly between the Royal Festival Hall and County Hall, on both sides of Hungerford Bridge. An L-shaped block (today transformed into a block of flats called “The White House”) up-river from the far more spectacular four-cornered Upstream Building with its twenty-six-floor tower – then the largest office block in Europe – were intended to represent a multinational company that in the course of the previous decade had grown to become the producer of a proud one-seventh of the world’s oil needs. Curiously, the architects of the Shell Centre, Ralph Maynard-Smith and Sir Howard Morely-Robertson, both died within a year of its inauguration; the faceless, windowed facades do indeed lend the lumbering colossus a somewhat mausoleum-like character. The architecture critic of The Guardian, Jonathan Glancey, once cruelly but accurately described the entire complex as “Speer-like”. Its facade is clad in pale Portland stone, which offsets the bronze-coloured window frames. In contrast to the enthusiasm at the time for concrete and glass, wasn’t this choice of material, if anything, conservative, perhaps even anachronistic? A symbolic recourse to the favoured facade-material of imperial buildings such as the British Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral, or the Royal Courts of Justice? Or was it just the comparatively young oil industry displaying a bit of bling?

A walkway leads from Waterloo station directly into the heart of the Shell Centre, but the interior courtyard is an invariably lifeless place. No water flows from Frank Belsky’s sculpture fountain, resembling layers of leaf-like, overlapping shells; neither does Siegfried Charoux’s “The Motorcyclist” project welcoming charm, perhaps because the grim look and the helmet of the motorcyclist all too obviously resemble a soldier. Charoux, who emigrated from Vienna in 1935, had made a highly prominent contribution to the sculptural section of the Festival of Britain. On the ground floor of the Shell Centre, there are no rooms accessible to the public; even the display window, in which Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari is exhibited as a vital image of the oil brand, appears, in this joyless, permanently wind-buffeted environment, as a dislocated relic from the era before the paranoid multinationals had closed ranks against the challenge of globalization protesters and human rights organizations.

After the merger with its sister company Royal Dutch and a record profit year in 2004 – quickly tainted by the embarrassing over-estimate of its own oil reserves by a cool four billion barrels – Shell moved its headquarters to Holland in order to reduce costs. The London Shell Centre was thus disempowered; but its forlorn impression, astonishing for this central part of town, didn’t come about overnight. A nostalgic re-evaluation of this under-commercialized public space, which paradoxically seems almost eastern-bloc in its bareness, may be just around the corner: plans for the transformation of the interior courtyard according to commercial criteria, with prettified shopping, offices, and gastronomy areas, including the obligatory glass facades and piazza, have already been approved by the city authorities.

But perhaps in a world of ephemeral power structures it would be a little too easy to look for traces of oil in the skyscrapers of a multinational, in the rainbow puddles at the side of the road, or in the over-rated North Sea reserves (in 2004, Great Britain had to register a deficit in oil trading for the first time in 13 years). After all, large parts of London were built with money that never came into physical contact with the roots of its origin; the large subsidiaries of British, French, Dutch, and Swiss financial institutions in the City of London greedily sucked up oil deposits worldwide. Hardly anywhere else in the world can the millions earned from oil be parted with so elegantly and easily as in London, and the result is a semi-temporary, semi-permanent immigrant community who differ from the countless other migrant societies above all in their financial clout. And if you want to see strange Arab number plates on fat limousines, just stroll north from Park Lane to Baker Street. On the corner of Paddington Street, Hassan’s newsagents sells, along with a few other Arab newspapers, specialist publications such as Collection, the “pan-Arabian luxury magazine”. But in contrast to the obvious Islamic communities on the nearby Edgware Road, or out in the suburbs, propertied Arab London has no special interest in drawing attention to itself.

Admittedly, the understatement ends north of the Marylebone Road with the voluminous golden dome of the flashy London Central Mosque at the west end of Regent’s Park. With its white minaret and the giant crystal chandeliers easily visible through the high windows in the prayer hall, the Central Mosque is the most conspicuous image of Arab oil capital – even if its history began quite differently, as a “gift” wrung out after decades of pressure from Winston Churchill’s war cabinet to its Muslim fellow-citizens. Although Muslims represented numerically the largest confessional community in the British Empire, and though Muslim soldiers lost their lives in a correspondingly large number, there was nowhere in London for Muslims to congregate. In 1944, a Mosque committee formed from diplomats from Islamic countries and Muslim Britons took over the land at the Hanover Gate end of Regent’s Park that had been offered to them by the government for the erection of an Islamic centre. It was a prominent location, which made obtaining planning permission for an ostentatious Islamic building all the more difficult. After the rejection of countless designs and diplomatic intervention from Islamic countries, the reluctant authority eventually approved, a full quarter-century later, designs by the English architect Sir Frederick Gibberd. King Faisal of Saudi-Arabia put up almost a third of the total six and a half million pounds construction costs; in the 1990s, King Fahd contributed the wherewithal for the schooling and administrative wing.

But the Mosque in Regent’s Park is by no means the only temple serving Londoners’ spiritual edification co-financed by foreign oil-millions from abroad: a couple of miles southwest is the stadium of Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge. The Premier League champions have in the last two seasons experienced a sporting and financial boost thanks to an estimated 350 million pounds invested in the club by the Siberian Oil-Mogul in London exile, Roman Abramovich. Since then, the team, pumped up by international star players, has been known by friends and enemies as “Chelski”. Last year Chelsea FC logged record losses of 88 million pounds, but thanks to a loan of 115 million pounds underwritten personally by owner Abramovich, the club was able to keep its head above water. The would-be patron made his legendary fortune with oil company Sibneft, which, since merging with Yukos, is part of to the fourth largest oil conglomerate worldwide. Abramovich’s profits from the privatization of the former Soviet oil industry were based on shady deals, mostly at the expense of the Russian smallholder. But until recently, the 37-year-old Croesus was still revered as a popular hero for his generous donations to the impoverished population of the Siberian province of Chukotka, made while he was governor of the region. Apparently Abramovich does not intend to stand in the next elections, and who knows how he would fare – after all, last May the whole province was declared bankrupt with debts of US$ 300 million. The Russian tax inspectors had noticed that a large part of the US$ 472 million tax rebates the province had been granted since Abramovich entered office had ended up benefiting Sibneft.

It can be safely said that London’s Chelsea fans won’t care much about the ethical implications should it emerge that their team won Premier League glory on the back of some faraway Siberian province. One of the most enduring and far-reaching translation failures is the assumption that the English concept of fairness has something to do with justice. “Fair enough” is rather that which eludes punishment. In money matters, some things are permissible which don’t necessarily correspond to the clich� of British reserve. That was something more than thirty Greenpeace activists learned , when on 16 February, the day of the implementation of the Kyoto protocol, they barged their way into the international petrol exchange building to protest at the international oil industry’s contribution to climate change. Greenpeace activists, equipped with whistles and foghorns, released balloons with wailing anti-rape alarms attached to them, in order to drown out the shouting of the brokers, and thus to sabotage trade. They hadn’t reckoned with the hands-on reaction of the professionally aggressive young traders. The traders kicked and beat the activists out of the hall, through the lobby, and onto the street, actively supported by the police, who arrested twenty-seven protesters, two of whom had to be taken to hospital.

On the same evening, Greenpeace activists appeared with their whistles at the annual dinner of the Institute of petroleum at the Grosvenor House Hotel on (three guesses) Park Lane, and covered the facade with a banner saying, “While climate change kills, the oil industry celebrates”. Oh, by the way: in 1999, at the autumn lunch of this very same Institute of Petroleum, a groundbreaking speech was made by none other than Dick Cheney, the transcription of which circulates on the internet, and has some revealing sections: “I�m often asked why I left politics and went to Halliburton and I explain that I reached the point where I was mean-spirited, short-tempered and intolerant of those who disagreed with me and they said ‘Hell, you�d make a great CEO’, so I went to Texas and joined the private sector.” After the introductory banter, Cheney informed his London audience that, “by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from?” In the next paragraph, he answers his question: “The ultimate prize” was “still the Middle East.” The rest is more or less history.

Photo by Mircea Stanescu

Published 29 July 2005
Original in German
Translated by Simon Garnett
First published by Wespennest 139 (2005) (German version)

Contributed by Wespennest © Robert Rotifer/Wespennest Eurozine


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